If you want to make money, you go to David Koepp. Three of the 20 films he has written are on the top 25 highest-grossing American box office list and another two show up in the top 100. The man makes hits and, most of the time anyways, they are well-written and focused scripts that attempt to keep exposition to a minimum. These are the traits of a very talented screenwriter... but unfortunately they do not necessarily translate into a positive resume for a feature film director.
Ghost Town is Koepp's fourth film as a director and it is the first film to feature UK comedian Ricky Gervais in a starring role. It tells the story of a dentist named Bertram Pincus (Gervais) who wakes from a friendly colonoscopy with the ability to see and hear the dead. It is inferred that this Shyamalanian gift was caused by a seven-minute interval during his operation where he died due to a two-strikes-already anesthesiologist. Ghosts of every color and creed begin hassling the chronically-introverted Pincus for favors, the leader of which seems to be Frank (Greg Kinnear).
A tux-donning victim of a high-speed Manhattan bus, Frank promises to get the other ghosts to leave if Bertram will help him derail his widow's pending nuptials. Turns out Frank's widow, Gwen (Téa Leoni), has been snubbed by Pincus on a dozen occasions (they live in the same apartment building), and her fiancé (Billy Campbell) is a civil-rights attorney. Not the easiest assignment for Pincus. But when the dentist helps crack the autopsy of a long-dead Egyptian king that Gwen is studying, she invites him to dinner, Pincus makes her laugh, and the end is already in sight. Morals are dished out on the side when Pincus agrees to help some other ghosts settle their unfinished business and there's also some stuff about "a life lived for others" passed on by a fellow dentist (Aasif Mandvi).
Much like the recent Hamlet 2, most of the film's success rides on the comic inventiveness of its star, and in this he is given little support from his director/screenwriter. At first, Gervais seems completely up to the task, employing the cracker-dry wit that made him such a phenomenon on the BBC version of The Office, the show he created and wrote with partner Stephen Merchant. There is a bright moment of hope as he has a particularly sharp exchange with Kristen Wiig of Saturday Night Live fame, who plays his surgeon. But then he script quickly shifts into standard operating procedure and comedy is swallowed by template.
Ghost Town has a smidgen more class than most contemporary romantic comedies but it is seemingly unaware of its strengths. Gervais' interplay with Leoni has a brisk charm to it but it seems too-often rushed and stuffed with jokes about dog poop, Chinese names, and naked ghosts, all of which seem out of place and drawn out. Egregiously over-sentimentalized, the last 30 minutes of the film rush through a half-dozen major conflicts in a mad dash to build to a predictable emotional climax. It's a total con and it sells Gervais' tremendous abilities up the river. Koepp's talents at structure falter slightly here, adding a few too many storylines than he seems capable of handling. Will Ghost Town make money? Probably, but it's the kind of film that gives box-office rankings a bad name.
In Zathura, a board game magically comes alive when played, thrusting its participants into a wild adventure through outer space. Based on a children's book by Chris Van Allsburg, Zathura shares a striking resemblance to another Van Allsburg book turned movie called Jumanji. Each film centers on kids who get sucked into oddly-titled-board games gone wild. While the concept works magically on paper, the translation to film has not been so successful. Marginal special effects and a heavy-handed dead-end plot crippled Jumanji. And unfortunately, Zathura suffers from the same problems as its predecessor.
In the film, pre-teen brothers Danny and Walter (Jonah Bobo and Josh Hutcherson) are always at odds with each other. Because Walter is a few years older and more independent, he wants nothing to do with Danny. But Danny is full of energy and desperate for some attention. Yet, everyone else in his broken family is sadly unavailable. Danny's older sister (Kristen Stewart) is too consumed with teenage boys; his dad (Tim Robbins) is too wrapped up with this work; and his mom is only available for selected visitation periods. What Danny wants most is to play with his brother.
While spending the weekend at their dad's creepy old house, a bored Danny finds a game called Zathura tucked away under the basement stairs. The game seems simple enough -- turn a key, push a button, and a card pops out with instructions on how to move your game piece. But because Walter thinks Danny cheats at board games, he's unwilling to participate and Danny must play alone. His first card warns of a meteor shower. Moments later, a heavy barrage of meteors attack the house and the boys are forced to take cover in the fireplace. Once the storm passes, Danny and Walter are shocked to find their house magically floating through space on a pile of rocks, dirt, and debris. Each new card that Danny and Walter draw brings them closer to the game's end, but also triggers a new series of frightening events for them to encounter.
Zathura -- Game on!
And what a boring game it turns out to be once it actually gets started! Zathura spends a ridiculous amount of time at the beginning to establish the fact that the boys hate each other. For nearly 30 minutes, we're subject to non-stop, obnoxious yelling and screaming between Danny and Walter. Then, once the house is in space, the arguing continues as the pair decide how to combat an out of control robot with circular saw blade hands and heat-seeking alien lizards with sharp teeth. The meager special effects creations are far from intriguing or memorable. They look like cheap imitations of scarier monsters from other movies, which may be too much for some younger children to handle.
In the end, Zathura is such a mess that the backstory it spends time developing is completely ignored. The film is so consumed with throwing whatever it can at these boys that they're never afforded a believable chance to reconcile their relationship. Kids may not care, but adults who believe Zathura will teach kids a lesson on working together should pass on this space trash.
Adventure is waiting. Literally.