Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Double Feature: 'Here Comes the Boom' and 'Hotel Transylvania'

Looking at what I'm reviewing, you might think that today was Kevin James Day. After all, I'm tackling two of his films in this Double Feature review; one stars James himself, while the other features James supporting his Happy Madison running buddy Adam Sandler. The first is Here Comes the Boom, which features James as a high school science teacher who becomes a Mixed Martial Arts combatant. If that sounds familiar to you, don't worry; it just means you were one of the few people who actually watched 2011's highly-underrated Warrior, half of whose plot followed an extremely similar situation. So, okay, it's nowhere near a unique idea. But what most impressed me going in to see this film was how much weight the usually-hefty James dropped in preparation for this role, revealing a level of commitment usually not seen in a comedic actor.

Scott Voss (James) is a high school biology teacher who at one point won a Teacher of the Year award, but ten years later has become frustrated with a school system that cares less about the kids it is supposed to be educating than it does pushing them through like cattle. Despite his now-lazy attitude when it comes to teaching, he cannot sit still when he learns that a budget deficit will force his school to eliminate the Music program and fire his fellow teacher and friend Marty Streb (Henry Winkler). Determined to help the school make up the necessary $48,000 to keep their programs, Scott trains to become an MMA fighter. In his early 40's and not in the best shape, he doesn't have the best shot in the world of making it work; still, he doesn't have any real alternatives, and the grueling process might just force him to see the world in a different way than he ever expected.

Seriously, the best he's ever looked.
Yes, the whole story is a big cliche, but that can be okay when the cast and crew are at least genuine in their portrayal of the story. Director Frank Coraci (Who helmed Sandler flicks The Wedding Planner and The Waterboy) keeps the story going forward while using appropriate filler whenever necessary. I'm actually surprised he hasn't had many directing jobs up to now; in a career that has lasted over fifteen years, this is only his seventh motion picture. It's not that he is necessarily that great, but he certainly seems to be able to handle the pacing of a comedy project. The presence of Kevin James is also an asset, as the actor has always managed a refreshingly honest take on his everyman characters. He worked for almost a year to get into the shape required for this role, possibly the most impressive physical transformation I've seen from any comedian..

That's gotta hurt.
But that's where the good comes to a halt. It's bad enough that as a comedy, the movie simply isn't that funny. There are laughs here and there, mostly involving James' physical training. But most of the film is surprisingly laugh-free, especially the unnecessarily-dramatic (though surprisingly somewhat effective) final fight. But most of the side stories don't really go anywhere, short scenes feel out of continuity, and side character don't do a whole lot of growing beyond their preset limits. The participation of Salma Hayek, former MMA fighter Bas Rutten, pop singer Charice and Gary Valentine all feel forced, but it is the over-saturation of Henry Winkler that is the film's biggest flaw. I love the former Happy Days and Arrested Development actor normally, but his character feels increasingly unnecessary the further the film runs, and is completely annoying by the end of the 105 minute run time.

The Fonz got OLD.
Sooner or later, you're going to get bored by Here Comes the Boom, despite arguably being one of Kevin James' better movies as a leading man. In the past, James has fared better as a supporting actor or as part of an ensemble group. Boom shows him able to take the lead spot by himself, so that's at least a minor victory. Unfortunately, it's not the heavy-laughs film the first half aspires to nor the inspirational journey the second half wants to be. You'd be better off picking any comedy film from your home DVD shelf, as only true James fans need apply.

Surprisingly better is the animated Hotel Transylvania, the film from Sony Pictures Animation featuring the voice of Adam Sandler. In the world of 3D animation, it used to be that the genre was under a constant land war between Pixar and Dreamworks. Now other studios are finally catching up. Besides Disney (who seems to have finally adapted to the new milennium), studios such as Blue Sky (Rio), Aardman Animations (Arthur Christmas, Pirates!), Illumination Entertainment (Despicable Me), LAIKA (Coraline, ParaNorman) and Industrial Light and Magic (Rango) have all made forays into the 3D market, with much success. Sony's animated hit is the latest entry to that rapidly-growing competition, and I was honestly surprised how much heart Sandler and company brought to the big screen.

To help protect his daughter and the other "creatures of the night", Dracula (Sandler) has designed and constructed a hotel in the Transylvania wilds to be used as a safe haven for monsters around the world. When his "teenage" daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) turns 118, she wants to explore the outside world, but Dracula, worrying for her safety, wants her to stay with him at the hotel. When a human named Johnny (Andy Samberg) accidentally arrives at the hotel, Dracula doesn't know what to do. He has worked hard to keep humans away from the hotel and his guests, but Johnny threatens to undo all his efforts in one fell swoop. But could that be for the better?

It wouldn't be an Adam Sandler movie if he didn't sing.
Naturally, this film has all the issues of a typical Adam Sandler film. Most of the animated films I mentioned before can be enjoyed both by children and their parents because the scripts include jokes and gags that appeal to a variety of ages. Hotel Transylvania shifts to the lower age scale, and while that's definitely Sandler's strength (he tends to struggle with R-rated fare Jack and Jill and That's My Boy), it means that parents taking their children will quickly tire of toilet humor that drives the kids wild. The acting is also mixed bag; while Sandler, Samberg and Steve Buscemi stand out nicely, most of the secondary characters don't get their due, and the ones that get pushed forward (like Kevin James as Frankenstein, and Gomez) aren't nearly as interesting as they ought to be. More input from the likes of Fran Drescher, Molly Shannon, Jon Lovitz and Cee Lo Green would have been appreciated, as more growth in this area would have been to the film's benefit.

Vampires; the only "normal" monsters out there...
But director Genndy Tartakovsky manages to surprise the audience with a shocking amount of heart and depth in the backstory he provides. The plot - that of a father struggling to accept his the fact that his daughter is growing up - is a fairly universal theme, and told in a touching manner that might illicit more than a few tears. In his first feature film, Tartakovsky also shows an excellent eye for character design, in which he manages to capture the best elements of his subjects and translate them to the big screen with ease. While the story does at times stretch believability even more than you would normally see in a monster movie, his direction means that you will stick around for the grand finale, even if it is a bad music video.

"I KNEW I should have turned left at Bulgaria!
Halloween themes have been dominating the animation scene in 2012, with ParaNorman and Frankenweenie tackling similar monster showcases this year. Hotel Transylvania is not up to the level of those modern classics, but it's still a solid, surprising effort from a rookie director and a talented cast and crew. It's more for the kids set, so adults without should partake in the former options instead. Still, for a film you can take your kids to without worrying about scaring them too much, this is a title well worth their time.

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