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Episode II: Send in the Clowns
The Star Wars universe to me, and to thousands of others like me, has a grip on our childhood and great memories past. Sure, the Star Wars universe will always be seen is an amazing cinematic achievement, however, it's unquestionably plain as the nose on Jar-Jar's face that `Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones' is a bad movie. This harsh statement needs to be said and not ignored if only because of the juggernaut it spawned from. The faith I once had is gone, the force can't help good old George's name out from under the thick layer of mud it resides.
The opening ten minutes of `The Phantom Menace' was actually quite captivating. This time there is nothing to give you that false hope; it jumps right into the drudgery with some poor action scenes and explosions (`The Fifth Element' comes to mind here). New alien creatures are great fun but Lucas has approached the thousand-something new monsters and robots alike featured in Episode II with the guidance of 20th Century Fox marketing executives. CGI (computer generated imagery) was painfully overdone which caused distractions in the story all the way through. Actually, now that I think about it there wasn't really much of a substantial a story to follow. Just inane characters wandering around with `no clue' plastered all over their faces and a few minor events toward the end to get us up to date chronologically. And with the entire political backdrop in the narrative I wonder if kids will understand at all. I know politics always put me to sleep when I was a lad.
Talking of bad characters, most of them fail because of bad scripting. Who the hell did they think they would impress. Even little Timmy buying Darth Maul action figures from K-mart could give Lucas tips on what is good dialogue and what is just plain corny. All the other actors, although talented, came off looking like props. Oh yah and Jar-Jar was back for a few short scenes, still horrible and making you cringe, and Hayden Christensen annoys the living daylights out of you every time he's on screen. Badly miscast (again!) as Anikan and I fear that he's too whiny for audience respect.
`Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones' offers you almost nothing for your time. I can't express the disappointment I - a Star Wars fan - felt walking out of the cinema. Alas, the Star Wars universe has walked out on us. Directing was so bad it surprises me George Lucas gets any respect at all now. Acting was flat, CGI was bad and the script was written on the back of a napkin. Upside was the sound effects and score was amazing. Some good action sequences and great art design only diluted by the CGI overdose. Tips for Lucas might be; get someone *else* into to write the script and add new dimension; hire someone to direct like you did with Empire and Jedi they might be able to draw something out of the actors; tone down the blue screen stuff because even the Muppet Yoda had more soul than the CGI Mighty Mouse one in these films; and return some of the 50's Matinee style that inspired the originals which gave characters like Han Solo and Chewbacca some charm and the perilous action a bit exuberance. All those lucky enough to experience the original trilogy before this apocalyptic fiasco can tell the next generation about the good old days. Sadly, it's the end of a dynasty for this withered fable.
2 out of 5
Big Fish (2003)
It's rather ironic that Tim Burton has found himself making `Big Fish.' He's famously known for utilizing attention-grabbing visuals to slide the story into a slightly offbeat fantasy world and is often criticized for being more in tune with the esthetics rather than script details. Still, he works under scrutiny from the critics in a medium that tells the tallest of tales but to an audience that is divided over the best way of telling them. Some love the storybook method of adventure and the fantastic, while others don't buy into it and prefer a movie with a heavy foot planted firmly on solid ground. Those of you in the latter will not enjoy Burton's movies but may tolerate them. This is the message in `Big Fish.' It is between Edward Bloom and his son, Will. They both have different perceptions of what is important and what is baloney.
The fantasy genre is slowly making a stand for itself after years of being second to others in the Hollywood vocab. In `Big Fish' they make extra evident that fantasy is far more intoxicating than reality and that you can find boundless pleasure in its escapism. Yet `Big Fish' not only tells an entertaining story but it also invokes the imagination. Tim Burton is a very good storyteller, I think, because his visual eye is perfect for the big screen. This time Burton and company manage to combine the best of all elements and make a truly amazing film.
This whimsical Tim Burton movie keeps a finger on the human elements, emotion and spirit. The manner in which it is told, with amazing characters found in tall tales, is inherently likeable, as a good yarn has always been over many generations. There is nothing too deep here, just a good story to be shared with the world. And that's the fundamental nature of going to the movies in the first place, to listen to an entertaining story, and this one is told with enthusiasm and heart. `Big Fish' will be as good as you want it to be. The general message is this and it's important to appreciate how the way a story is told can effect your very perception. You must first give into it, kind of like a leap of faith for some, but once you've let go of the world the story will happily reel you in hook, line and sinker.
4 out of 5
In America (2002)
Dreams of a Better Tomorrow
This moderately small film about a reasonably hopeful family struggling with an alien city and personal trauma will come across quite differently for each and every one of us. `In America' opens itself wide up personally and gets you to watch and judge it's joys and sorrows by linking to your own. May it be the innocence of two little girls or the parenting skills of the young parents who sneak across the border in desperation, it's a grounded look into the bottomless well of life and dreams.
The screenplay by Jim Sheridan is brilliantly handled, clever, honest and able to capture the faults as well as the strengths in its characters. With the story confined to the family of four it never has to reach beyond the measure of it's own private ode. The personal context of `In America' is part of its success. Sheridan shares the writers credit with his two daughters Naomi and Kirsten and also based much of the film around his own experiences of coming to America as well as the loss of his son (also named Frankie), for which the film is dedicated to.
Sheridan's relationship with the material also ensures an outstanding development with the characters. Amazingly well directed all the actors show pure strength and maturity with the material, that includes Sarah and Emma Bolger who play the two young sisters Christy and Ariel. There's a definite understanding of everyone's situation and stance on the events but it's good to watch and see how these circumstances unfold and affect the characters individually, one by one. Sheridan works well with the actors and passionately with the story.
`In America' has so many agonizing moments and symbolic gestures that it's hard not to relate to this film. As entertainment it's a pleasure to watch from start to finish. I applauded Jim Sheridan and the cast for that but everything came together as one working piece. There's never been a more prominent aspect of our everyday lives than dealing with the grief in our past and looking toward a hopeful future. `In America' is an encouraging film that seems to say ` I wish you well.'
4 out of 5
Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)
Once again these looney characters are joined by live action co-stars in set pieces. It's a modern film with a modest budget but director Joe Dante and the writer Larry Doyle hearken back to the tried and true Sunday afternoon formula of non-stop gags and wacky toon traditions. Doyle, writer for such famed TV cartoons as' The Simpson's' and `Daria', has done an outstanding job of resurrecting the dialect and mannerisms of the characters long remembered. Another perfect choice was that of kid-at-heart director Joe Dante. He is responsible for some of the most fun live-action/live-animation films like `Small Soldiers' and the `Gremlins' films. Two classic originals that scream please make a Looney Tunes film Mr. Dante' to me.
`Looney Tunes: Back In Action' does not lose sight of its roots but at the same time keeps it very new and fresh. So too were the original cartoons as they were often filled with witty gags and comments on current events and influences. And like those animated shorts this is a movie not afraid to be smart to get laughs. Kids will not have a clue what's being said half the time but will stay amused by the action, eye-candy animation and cartoon violence. Yes the political incorrectness line has been understandably blurred, with a quick remark from Porky Pig on the issue, to make way for who these characters really are (or better yet were). And that's what makes this movie golden, the fact that the much loved traits of all the characters created by the likes of Chuck Jones and Tex Avery return for `Looney Tunes: Back In Action' with no excuses.
What `Looney Tunes: Back In Action' turns out to be is a lengthy Looney Tunes short full of quick jokes and fond memories. It's ultimately rewarding as Looney Tune adventure but not a satisfying feature film. Mind you there's nothing wrong with what Joe Dante and the gang at Warner Brothers have done, it just seems that these characters are better suited to short and quick blasts of outrageous comedy. There is a great deal here to enjoy, especially for those of you who have grown up watching Looney Tunes, because the energy and anarchical nature of these golden oldies is most defiantly (as the title suggests) back in action. The traditional animation has been handled with great care and the voices by Joe Alaskey, Jeff Bennett, Billy West, and others are spot on (Brendan Fraser plays the voice of Taz and for what it's worth he does a good job). Despite some slight failings and shortcomings this is a movie rich in many layers of entertainment. Dante doesn't want or expect you to start looking for deeper meaningful things from a Looney Tunes picture so my advice is don't. If you've seen any of the original Looney Tune shorts then you will know that all you need before watching this film is a funny bone and a good sense of irreverent humor.
Score - 3 out of 5
A Real Champion
Some of the most enjoyable movies are the ones that can please a crowd. `Seabiscuit' is most certainly that. Even in the face of it's own fumbling clichés and pace the film is able to rise to the occasion, much like the very horse himself.
Now, I don't know the story or have read the book by Laura Hillenbrand from which it was adapted. I don't know how much of it is true or Hollywood exaggeration but as a film, standing on it's own, it works extremely well. At the core of `Seabiscuit' is the down and out tale of adversity we have seen a hundred times before but it's the characters themselves and writer/director Garry Ross's approach on the subject matter that keeps it from going stale. As a screenwriter this is only Ross's second directorial picture following `Pleasantville', and he is definitely finding his knack for the medium.
And so, with a film like this it becomes a vehicle for human drama. Casting is exceptional. To begin with we are introduced one by one, with narration by David McCullough, the three major players and their stories. Jeff Bridges as the down and out auto tycoon Charles Howard, Tobey Maguire as the homeless, uncharacteristic, half-blind jockey Red Pollard, and lastly Chris Cooper as the archaic horse trainer Tom Smith. Together they share a common thread. All have been hit hard during America's Great Depression and all get there mangled sprits restored by a lazy horse that can't ride straight, sleeps all day and loves to eat.
`Seabiscuit' is just another sappy feel good movie but darn it, I felt good having seen it. In a similar approach to this year's `Finding Nemo' this movie is light entertainment that seems to hit all the right buttons. In the end it's so upbeat that you let the maudlin bits slide. It's not perfect (far from it) but it's a reachable movie for audiences to enjoy without worry. It's a film of strong working parts. There is not one aspect that carries it alone, not acting, directing, or editing. It's the whole shebang. And you definitely get enough bang for your buck as this champion races on for a lengthy 2 ½ hour running time. Yes, it can get a little sluggish during the middle but don't let this obstacle keep you from going because it's a sure triumph when you reach the end.
Score - 4 out of 5
Finding Nemo (2003)
An Absolute Whale Of A Tale
Wow, the digital realm is easily forgotten when you first lock eyes on the visual wonder created for yet another charming tale from Disney/Pixar Animation. `Finding Nemo' is Pixar's fifth outing and after a moderately spotless track record they keep this one swimming in a wealth off colour and three-dimensional form. Their visual language has proven to be a clear and successful method of storytelling. It captures the imagination and accommodates some fairly decent stories to-boot. And what setting could be more exciting than Australia's exotic eastern coastline.
But it's a mix of Pixar's wonderful craft and a well written story that keeps audiences enthralled, and this time director/writer Andrew Stanton serves up just that, on a silver platter. What remains is the winning formula of comedy and gravity within the screenplay. Stanton has been involved with all of the other Pixar features in the past, and it shows. Even deep under the ocean, far removed from the human subtleties that are woven into usual animations, is a rich tapestry of lifelike environments and genuine character's that are easy to connect and relate to. And in the usual Pixar tradition you get a film that bridges the age boundary and becomes wholly enjoyed by all, young and old.
I enjoyed myself for the entire duration of `Finding Nemo' (that included the final credits). I recommend it to all, no matter what your cinematic preference may be. Besides the lavish visual elements that have made Pixar much admired this has been a labor of love for Andrew Stanton that started way back in 1992, prior to Toy Story. It's a new development in the path the entire production house is heading. Thomas Newman's involvement in writing music for this project shows us exactly that as his score gives the film a new emotional style. It's also a `new high water mark' for CGI (computer generated image) animation in general. Pixar is now an established force in animation but politely recognizes others in the industry as well. For example you have the address (amongst other things) Wallaby Way that will be instantly recognizable to "Wallace and Gromit" fans and a way-cool Sea Turtle (Crush, voiced by Stanton himself) with a very close resemblance to those four ninja friends of his. There are also plenty of fun references to Jaws, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Monty Python and nearly every previous (and upcoming) Pixar feature. You also have Pixar's own Joe Ranft, who made famous the character of Heimlich the caterpillar from `A Bug's Life', making another special appearance as the voice of Jacques the cleaner shrimp. Kids won't get these in-jokes but for the adults it's a warm welcome. But, when it comes down to it `Finding Nemo' is aimed at just about anyone, as long as you enjoy a well-told and inventive story. From the vibrantly lush to the murky dark this is an absolute lure for the eyes and a treat for the funnybone.
Score - 4 out of 5
The Matrix Revolutions (2003)
A Losing Battle
Finally, after 4 years in the making, the end of this generation's biggest Sci-Fi parable has landed. But is it what we dreamt of? I don't think it is. `The Matrix' shook us up but its sequel shook it back down. I found `The Matrix Reloaded' far too bloated and not up to strength with it's 1999 predecessor but, was hoping for deliverance within the final chapter. But alas, `The Matrix Revolutions' can't salvage a weary franchise or redeem it. Mistakes in the past only amplify in the future and what we are left with is a myth now hollowed out to an empty shell, not even worthy of it's own exciting concept.
So what went wrong? For those of you who have seen all three films then you will know that there is great strength in the story, but plenty of room to slip. The Wachowski brothers (Larry and Andy) showed us that it is still very easy to make a film that asks you to think deep and have fun as well. But over time, with each successive chapter, the fun was drawn out. Again that is a problem reflected on the characters. Like the last one this movie fails to let the chief characters grow and be nurtured by the viewers. I find myself caring less about Neo now that he is the almighty chosen one, as it seems most unlikely that his life could ever be in any real danger even outside the Matrix! But to add insult to injury new characters are created and discarded leaving the more substantial characters we have come to love (eg Morpheus) by the wayside. Nearly all the new characters from Reloaded are gone or gotten rid of in the blink of an eye. It would have been more sensible to develop these already established characters and put them to good use in the final plot. What a waste.
I don't wish the Wachowski's had never made the last two episodes (I campaigned there exciting arrival) I just wish they had handled it better. That's not to say that this film doesn't have any good qualities, it does. Technically `The Matrix Revolutions' is perfect. The visual effects are stunning and put to better use than in `Reloaded.' There are some moments that are truly amazing but nothing that stands out. The last two films had some classic scenes that showed you just why these films are unique but there is none of that here. The rain drenched battle between Neo and Agent Smith and the end of `Revolutions' is fitting but not as epic as say the 19-minute highway chase or the high wire rescue in the first film.
Any hint of originality is gone. It's way too serious for it's own good. All joy has been sucked out and overlooks that simple element from the original that I miss very much. I think that's what upsets me more than anything. Are the Wachowski's that good a storyteller or did coincidence and luck give them a winning film in `The Matrix' way back then? Maybe that's the teaser, not philosophy, Gnosticism, Buddhism, folklore or any other kind of global mythology entwined in here.
Score - 3 out of 5
In the Cut (2003)
`In the Cut' is nerve wrenchingly dark and skilfully strips away anything that stereotypes Meg Ryan's film presence and on screen demeanour. I was quickly put in my place when my humble expectations fell flat by gripping realism not felt this explicit since `Se7en.' It's that sense of `realism' that lets the film go beyond its formula and truly lets you in on what's being said. It's a murder mystery that doesn't concentrate heavily on who done it. That's just a passenger to the handful of characters, specifically Frannie Thorstin, and to drive you along thus developing those characters via circumstance and events.
The team responsible for `In The Cut' behind and in front of the camera dig deep and personal to give an amazing effort. Firstly, and squarely in the spot light, is Meg Ryan with a tough role dual-sided and unyielding. The movie is hers and she carries it well. If anything the movie must be commended on the central performance by Ryan who is not only daring but also very genuine and dynamic. Co-actor Mark Ruffalo who plays Detective Giovanni Malloy is an equal opposite to Ryan's character Frannie and serves as equilibrium as both actors play off of one another. There is danger around every corner in this movie and both Malloy and Frannie have conflicting emotions. But it's Frannie who also fears Malloy despite her attraction to him that is the iron grip of the narrative. The two actors are perfectly cast and do a brilliant job. I must also mention Kevin Bacon too because he always makes for a good eerie yet highly suspicious ex-boyfriend type. In fact he has a great little part that helped make the entire film. There are a few other supporting actors to credit but needless to say they are all great.
I heard some pretty downbeat remarks about `In The Cut' from various critics and it's got a pretty bad wrap in general (mostly due to Meg Ryan for some odd reason). To say that `In The Cut' is clear-cut would be wide of the mark. The story lies beneath the surface in a physiological ditch close to home and that can be discouraging if you're not ready for it. Meg Ryan is incredible, award winning incredible, in a provocative and very revealing role that can be grim, frightening and erotic simultaneously. I have not read the original novel but apparently there are modest changes, the kind of changes that are often made to adaptations to play better in the medium. Jane Campion has quite successfully let the visuals tell much of the story together with incredible cinematography by Dion Beebe that borders on art house. Judging by the mixed reactions, the subject matter and the very subjective title itself it's a movie that will take you somewhere not everybody is willing to go. Don't be put off by negative comments directed at this film; it's a movie that connects to people in their own way. All I will say is see it for yourself, on the big screen preferably, and try and understand what is being said and explored rather than expecting anything in particular.
Score - 4 out of 5
Cold Mountain (2003)
Adapted from the much-loved novel by Charles Frazier, `Cold Mountain' has been a welcome arrival to the big screen. Acclaimed director/screenwriter Anthony Minghella, thankfully, has taken on the responsibility of bringing forth the tangled story of love and war to a visual reality. May it be war on an epic scale or war on a personal level Minghella knows precisely how to capture the moment. And even with the abundance of splendid scene-scapes and backdrops spread throughout the film the key achievement `Cold Mountain' exhibits is the emotion and passion harnessed within the characters.
Clearly the heart of the story is one that viewers are more than familiar with. Hope, loss and love, all up against overwhelming odds, it's hardly original. But, you will find satisfaction by being able to identify with the emotional quandary of these characters. Once you get to know them you slip into the story and enjoy yourself all the more. But Minghella has some trouble getting you there. The movie starts off slowly as exposition and character development is needed to boost the rest of the film. It's all stuff that is essentially needed but it's just a little dreary at times. On top of that the need to get closer to true history means that the tone gets quite depressing. This is only strengthened by the characters who the majority are driven by a sad coating of misery, sin or defeat in their lives. Then add the Confederacy losing the war and you don't have a very happy place to be. Make no mistake about it Minghella has made a serious drama with a somewhat relaxed momentum in the telling. But if it's authenticity that he wanted then he has done a marvelous job. It's just that, in this case, reality can really bring you down.
Performances are all A-class. The two leads, Nicole Kidman as Ada and Jude Law as Inman, are truly great actors. The roles themselves are not the best we've seen but they work well within context of the story. Renée Zellweger's character, Ruby, strikes a sudden change to the pace and grim guise the rest of the movie holds. I found myself liking all of Ruby's scenes but am still trying to figure out if it's because she's the inversion of an overly dim film or because she just sticks out like a sore thumb. Either way I think the film would have probably fell completely stagnate if it weren't for Zellweger's lively portrayal.
`Cold Mountain' is not exactly Anthony Minghella's greatest effort but definitely one of his finest. This is a great story made with tremendous care by a large handful of master filmmakers. It's a little bleak and sluggish for most of the time but done in reflection to the literary source and the authenticity of the story. Ironically, it's hard to imagine it done in any other way. Despite some minor announces you will have a hard time not enjoying yourself. In the end this is a good entertaining few hours. I'd even go as far as saying it's a must see film, because you really must see it to make your own judgment.
Score - 3 out of 5
All Hail The King
It honestly does little to his stature by mentioning that author J.R.R. Tolkien was a genius, but it's as true as anything I know. His words told a story but it's what they leave behind with the reader that made all the difference. Something deep touched director Peter Jackson's heart when he first read it and I know this because I felt it too when I read it, and again, the same feeling when I saw the movies. Say what you will about the integrity of events or characters in this adaptation but there's no denying the passion and solidarity to Tolkien's work.
`The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King' is the point where all lines (characters, story, events) from past to present draw together and complete the picture, so wide in scale, so epic in its execution, that it takes more than just a few minutes to truly appreciate the complexity of this giant film. I have seen nothing like it before in my life, and remain in awe of the gift of success that came at such an enormous risk. Much that was once doubted or criticized has been washed away in a sweet tide of victory from the filmmakers. But aside from all the obvious technical and narrative achievement of each film the most amazing feat that Jackson and company was able to accomplish was bringing these three continuing films together seamlessly, as one free flowing tale.
As the camera lens widens with epic visuals of massive armies and battle scenes the story simultaneously narrows in on the relationships and character struggles. On one hand it's about the peoples of Middle-earth and on the other it's about the individual characters whose fate is entwined into these horrific circumstances. Neither one overshadows the other as Jackson manages to juggle everything with such care and expert deliverance. Much of the films success is due to the intricate development of so many wonderful characters that remain at the foreground of Jackson's film versions. Superb casting has seen this become the most beloved element in the films, something you remember strongly toward the end when we see them saying goodbye, there is a genuine feeling of loss and accomplishment as we conclude this journey together.
Peter Jackson has worked hard, its plain to see, and the rewards are more than one could wish for. What he has done with this legendary tale is go far beyond just making three movies. He has ushered in a new era in film with outstanding quality and approach, ever vigilant of the viewers. These films are for the fans by the fans and he has done all this without taking his eye off the ball as a filmmaker. It is over now but the films are instant classics that will live on through the test of time. I am thankful for the chance to see these movies in my time and will be forever grateful for Peter Jackson and his good heart.
Here at the end of it all I look back, spellbound. `The Return of the King' is an amazing conclusion not only to the hard long journey but also to the captivating world of Middle-earth. So much has gone into these films and so much has come out of them, to the lives of the people around it. I am touched by Peter Jackson and the work from his amazing visionaries who knew above all else that what they had was something special to tell. Every frame is littered with detail and splendor. Not a moment is lost to carelessness or brevity. It's loving and frightening. It will take you on the trip of your life, into golden fields and dark tunnels. Overall it just tells a fantastic story. It's a story that has lived on for generations and will continue to inspire and entertain. We will never see the likes of it again as it respectably slips into history as the great trilogy that ruled them all. For the Quest is achieved, and now all is over. I am glad to have been there, too.
Score - 5 out of 5