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The Banger Sisters (2002)
Finally, a movie that treats screwing rock stars in back alleys with dignity
Remember those scenes in "Almost Famous" where Penny Lane realizes with painful honesty just what her value is to the rock band she has remained loyal to, finding out that she has been "traded" to Humble Pie in exchange for a 12-pack of beer? "The Banger Sisters" is a movie that wishes that scene never happened.
Oh sure, it starts off looking like it might make some sort of similar argument, but "The Banger Sisters" is a movie that becomes more repugnant as it goes along. That it's a comedy is meant to resolve its silly nature I suppose, but really, what message is being expressed here? The movie opens and we discover that time has not been kind to Suzette. A former rock group hanger-on, she has just been fired from her job as a bartender in a seedy L.A. club for committing the cardinal sin in the rock business: growing old. I hope you enjoy this rare moment, because it's one of the few times in the film that the story actually suggests that being a groupie is not the best career choice for a young women.
Suz, in a state of depression and being the mooch that she is, decides to hunt down her old fellow groupie and best friend Vinnie so she can relive old times and get some money from her. Surely Vinnie will be sympathetic to her needs, having spent her entire life as a party girl as well.
This is not to be. Suz arrives in Phoenix to discover her best friend and fellow bedwarmer is now, *gasp* well-dressed, lives in a clean, pre-planned community, gainfully employed in a job that doesn't require mopping puke off the floor and married! Horror upon horrors! Vinnie and her family react to Suz's appearance at first as an unwelcome guest and an embarrassing reminder of Vinnie's wild past, which she had carefully up until this point hidden from her brood. But that's won't do for this story! Suz is determined to reignite Vin's partying passions, and after a terse dinner conversation brings up Vinnie's past, where she recounts Jim Morrison's legacy as the Lizard King, she breaks down and laments how she "lost herself" amid the hustle and bustle of suburban life.
She and Suz decide it's time to get loose. It's time to party. It's time to look at pictures of Jimmy Page's penis. Yes boys and girls, Vinnie is back in town! With a quick makeover complete with spiky hair and clothes that even Lil' Kim might take an awkward glance at, Vinnie is now ready to get down with her funky self.
Writer/director Bob Doleman has crafted a film that argues in favor of instant gratification and the mindless cult worship of rock celebrities. Even in the few moments where Suz is forced to examine her life choices, the movie never quite brings itself to condemn her. It's all the unsympathetic world's fault, man! You should be allowed to party all the time and devote your life to living in other people's shadows without question! Okay, throughout all this, Vinnie's family is shown to be stuck-up, ignorant of rock'n'roll and unsympathetic to Vinnie's past. That her daughters are both air-headed turds is never in question, but what crime did her lawyer/politician husband do to deserve this? Dear lord, one moment his wife is a happy real estate agent, the next she looks like she's ready to go down on a guitarist for bus fare. Can you blame his revulsion?
Well, apparently the movie can, because when his wife and her friend show up at their daughter's high school graduation looking like refugees from a Twisted Sister music video, he just smiles and tells them to take their seat. What just happened? The movie ends with Vinnie's daughter, who is the class valedictorian, giving some dumb speech that ends with her pleading that her classmates "Do it true." Everyone smiles and nods, and I just stare dumb-faced. Someone was actually paid to write a line that horrible, and what's more, the characters in the film react as though she was channeling Martin Luther King.
In my review, I neglected to mention another character with prominent screen time, a struggling writer named Harry. Really though, he is merely ancillary to the plot, and serves to be another person to reassure Suz that she hasn't wasted her life. Gag.
So what we have here is a film that not only glamorizes the activities of a subset of human beings who deserve to be pitied and scoffed at, but actually has the audacity to argue that growing up, becoming a respectable member of society and marrying someone whose ambitions lie beyond living from day to day on handouts is some sort of moral crime against oneself. Suz treats every aspect of Vinnie's life with suspicion, disbelief or disdain, and I get the feeling the movie is asking we join her.
That this whole thing is "cute" and "lighthearted" makes the movie all the more reprehensible. Is the movie well-made? Yes. Well-acted? Yes. Well-conceived? Well, the filmmakers surely did everything in their power to romanticize the life of a groupie. Well-received? Not a chance in heck. I suppose it shouldn't surprise me, given how Susan Sarandon got her big break in a movie where she sang "Touch me touch touch me touch me! I want to feel dirty!" but still, what a nasty trip to the well this whole thing was.
4 out of 10 stars. Young women should take note that if you try to replicate the lifestyles that this film choose to treat as innocent, cute and even morally righteous (Yeah! Stick it to the man!) you could probably end up dead from AIDS, an overdose in some seedy hotel, or traded for a pack of beer.
Call to Fly (2005)
Minor skateboarding odyssey, a nice low-budget film
The no-budget film genre is truly a testament to behold. Mostly a spawning ground for pretentious film school dropout and no talent hacks whose "films" are poorly conceived ripoffs of other production, it is not without its redeeming qualities.
Take for instance this offering. Minor, passable entertainment, "Call to Fly" is inoffensive and funny, moving at a leisurely pace and filled with some decently filmed skating sequences.
The story is threadbare but serves its purpose. Todd Falcon, respected skateboard jockey and all around nice guy plans to retire from the circuit and concentrate on running the Insanity skate park with his friend Deane. His plans get convoluted when he starts to develop a crush on Jade Sanford (Rebecca Torrellas), who has just inherited a rival skating park. Their blossoming relationship is threatened, however, by the interference of an evil oil tycoon (since J.R. on "Dallas," has any oil tycoon been good?) who owns the land Jade's park leases and wants to demolish it. I don't recall what he intended to use the land for, probably for a baby-killing factory, a Starbucks or something else equally dreadful. Oh, and he wants Jade for himself, too.
Jade's father ran a skateboarding club for underprivileged kids, and she feels guilty, among other things, that it will be shut down following the closure of her park. The rest of the film involves hosting a skateboarding event for fund-raising, musical acts, and budding love between the main characters (No, not Todd and the oil tycoon! Todd and Jade!) "Call to Fly" is a fairly crude film, mostly shot in a series of quick takes that constantly jump between characters. For this, the reactions between the characters don't always flow well. The story is frequently interrupted with skateboarding montages and at times the romance seems a little forced.
However, the movie isn't bad. It's mostly an innocent romp, the actors all seem to be having fun, and Falcon is a good enough director to know how long a scene should be, which puts him light years ahead of most directors at this level. Todd and Rebecca make a cute couple, not surprising given that they're a real life couple, too. The skateboarding tricks are pretty interesting to watch, and despite following the cliché "Let's save the *fill in the blank* from the evil industrialist" motif, the movie does manage a few nice surprises.
At one point in the film, the characters are attacked en masse by a hoard of the oil tycoon's henchmen. A long fight breaks out, which manages to entertain quite well. Obviously, it pales in comparison with, say, the bathroom rumble in "The Warriors," but for a low-budget comedy, it almost seems like an homage to the old live-action Adam West "Batman" series, only missing the "Bam!" and "Ooof!" onomatopoeias.
Really, for a movie aimed at kids, it's all in good fun. If you're interested in seeing an example of a creative micro-budget offering, this is a fine example. It would be interesting to see what director/star Falcon could do with a much higher budget.
Six out of ten stars. It was entertaining, which is what any film should be.
AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004)
Fun monster action from two popular series, but human scenes and isolated settings dampen the show
Movies made for fanboys are often a disappointing enterprise, but such is not always the case. Every now and then, a studio manages to get something right, especially when the premise is so intriguing it would be nearly impossible for it to fail.
Nearly. "Alien vs. Predator" is a testament to the durability of both film series, not quite the best realization of the idea, but still a very entertaining movie. Where it lacks the suspense of the earlier films, it makes up for in a sheer pleasure of witnessing a long awaited grudge match.
The Weyland Company has recently discovered an ancient pyramid located 2000 feet below the surface of Antarctica. Company CEO Charles Weyland(Lance Henriksen) has gathered together a team of explorers and adventurers to excavate down to the pyramid and explore the site. They include Alexa Woods (Sonaa Lathan), an expert on the Antarctic environment, Sebastian de Rosa (Raoul Bova), an archaeologist who specializes in civilizations with pyramids, and Greame Miller (Ewan Bremner), a photographer who comes along to document the event.
However, upon arriving at the site they discover that a hole has already been dug, as if it was in anticipation of their arrival. Once they enter the ancient structure, they quickly realize that it is actually a hunting ground. Two rival extraterrestrial species, one the warrior breed Predators and the other, the both insect-like and reptilian Alien xenomorphs, are at war with each other. The explorers quickly deduce they've been led into a trap, and must find a way out the pyramid while simultaneously dodging attacks from both killer species.
"Alien vs. Predator" is the type of film made specifically for the fans and people of morbid curiosity. Like 2003's "Freddy vs. Jason," the movie will divide up the viewers between their preferred monsters. I myself am an Alien man, but am open-minded enough to cheer on the Predators as well.
Unfortunately, there isn't much here that we haven't seen before, and furthermore, the movie lacks the kinetic edge that the original films in both series possessed. This is an action movie, but a dark and disturbing one at that. Still, the story moving this whole enterprise is basically just a gimmick, not a plot.
The movie also makes some nods to a few other sci-fi horror movies. The Antarctic location is obviously an homage to "The Thing," and the pyramid, a death trap whose rooms are constantly moving around, is most likely a nod to "Cube."
As Woods, Lathan is smart, resourceful and tough but still vulnerable. She's obviously meant to be the Ripley character, though she unfortunately lacks Sigourney Weaver's human edge. Lathan is up to the challenge, and it's neat to see her in this sort of environment after doing dramas like "Love and Basketball."
Henriksen is fun in the role of the billionaire adventurer who wants his immortality. As the only real established actor amongst this cast, he adds a level of professionalism that would otherwise be missing. His role is also an inside joke for fans for the Alien series.
The other actors are competent, but not special. Most of them are just fodder for the monsters, but Bova manages to make an impression as the Italian archaeologist looking for a missing link between the different pyramid civilizations, only to find that he's sorry to discover just what it is.
Director Paul Anderson has a long history of making films such as these, including his own "Alien" homage "Event Horizon." He is proficient with creating atmosphere and he keeps things moving along nicely, especially in the second half when the actions starts to kick in, but he lacks fellow "Alien" series helmer Ridley Scott's ability to build unnerving suspense, or James Cameron's all-out knock down actions scenes. From the "Predator" camp, he's also deficient in John McTiernan's gung-ho machismo.
"Alien vs. Predator" is not intelligent entertainment. In fact, it's unlikely it will have much of an audience outside the real die hards of each series. It's been 14 years since the last time Predators have been on screen, and seven for Aliens. Still, various different mediums have kept both series alive, and Aliens and Predators have battled before in both novels and comic books for the last decade or so.
It's a fun movie to watch, and there are some unsettling moments. Also, there's one creature in the film that manages to come off sympathetic, or at least as sympathetic as either of these creatures can be. It's a nice, unexpected twist in an otherwise mundane plot.
You'll either like "Alien vs. Predator" or you won't. There's not really much middle ground here. Plus, some of the hard-core fans may be turned off by the PG-13 rating, thinking it will be a watered down version. Rest assured though, there's still plenty of blood and gore, but mostly alien blood at that.
While it is fun, the movie may also be a disappointment to those expecting some epic battle between the species. What we have here is an isolated pit fight, not an all out war like the ads seem to suggest. The fights are intense but usually one-on-one, and can be over pretty quickly at times. Still, for those of you who are curious, "Alien vs. Predator" is certainly worth hunting down.
Six out of ten stars. A very fun movie to watch with great atmosphere, but it's not an all-out war between species and the human characters are just fodder to get between the different monsters.
Stone can't control his story or characters, and lets technical effects take over
What profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul? Such is the conundrum of Alexander the Great, one of the world's great conquerors and subject of Oliver Stone's film "Alexander." Alexander (Colin Farrell) is the son of Macedonian king Philip (Val Kilmer), a hedonistic ruler obsessed with his own legacy. His mother Olympias (Angelina Jolie) is a shadowy Lady Macbeth, filling the boy with delusions of grandeur and plotting behind Philip's back. Alexander is torn between loyalties to his father, a strict pragmatist who sees suffering as the reward for greatness, and his mother, who sees him destined to rule the world.
With war looming against the Persian Empire, Philip is assassinated and Alexander assumes control of the kingdom. He goes to war with Persia, conquering a superior force on the fields of Gaugamela and taking the city of Babylon as his prize. Not content with the spoils of war, he pursues the Persian king Darius into the wilderness with his army, including childhood friend turned sexual interest Hephaestion (Jared Leto).
As Alexander conquers more lands to the east, his power and legend grows. However, turmoil among the ranks of his soldiers who fear they will never return home along with foolish political movies such as marrying Roxane (Rosario Dawson), the daughter of a "savage" chieftain, strain his power to the breaking point. As Alexander becomes obsessed with bringing order to the known world, that same world seems ready to consume him at every turn.
"Alexander" has all the trappings of a great historical epic, but somehow it never comes together. The editing is disjointed, the narrative clumsily jumps back and forth between different eras, and the narration by Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) seems in place to explain the shoddy scene transitions to the audience rather than give insight into the characters. The gay aspects of Alexander's life are sensationalized and not treated with much realism. This isn't an epic; it's a monstrosity whose parts are greater than the whole.
To be fair, director Stone gives it his best shot. The movie certainly looks great, and the two battle scenes are handled with expert precision. But Stone can't keep his art house flourishes out of the movie. He insists on having close-ups of the eyes of wild animals, screws around with the film exposure and color tint and loads the film with enough of his trademark conspiracy theories to make five films.
Farrell gives a good performance, but he's still not right for the part here. The role of Alexander demands someone with more power, and Farrell plays the character with too many flaws to be believable as one of history's greatest leaders. That may be more the fault of Stone however, who co-wrote the screenplay.
Jolie and Kilmer are more interesting as Alexander's parents, but their presence amounts to little more than extended cameos. Leto has nothing to do except provide emotion support and fawn over Alexander. Dawson comes the closest to making an impact, but her character is sadly designated to the sidelines in favor of sequences of women dancing suggestively and gradual breakdown of morale among the men.
If even a quarter of this film is true, then Alexander the Great was truly a progressive idealist for his time, envisioning a kingdom of equal citizens of all races. However, the message in Stone's film "Alexander" comes off as too anachronistic and politically correct for the era in which it takes place. Like 2004's other ancient Greek epic "Troy," the movie is an all-star special effects laden event on a quest for a better plot.
Six out of 10 stars. Stone's film is certainly lively, but the editing is off, Farrell is too petulant to be believable as one of history's great leaders, and it all collapses under it's own weight.
The circle is complete with a new "Star Wars" film worthy of the name, finally
"The Revenge of the Sith" not only undoes the harm inflicted on the "Star Wars" universe that its two predecessors did, it justifies the entire second trilogy. The power and energy of the original films flows through every frame of this latest installment, and fans finally have a new movie that they can fully appreciate.
The Clone Wars has left the Republic in dire straights. Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and the rest of the Jedi suspect that Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is abusing his power to make his position permanent. Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) meanwhile is falling closer under the control of the Chancellor, whose corrupting influence is warping the young Jedi's sense of values.
Meanwhile, his wife Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) confides in Anakin that she is pregnant, and he starts having disturbing premonitions that she will die during childbirth. Obsessed with trying to prevent this, and also acting out his loyalty to the Republic, Anakin becomes seduced by the dark side of the Force and becomes an enemy of every Jedi.
With the Republic slowly becoming an Empire and the Dark Lords of the Sith seeking to wipe out the Separatists and Jedi to cover up their manipulations, the last remaining Jedi seek to halt the destruction of everything they hold dear.
"Revenge of the Sith" cranks up the emotional voltage that was lacking in the two previous installments. Writer-director George Lucas brings back the adventure, escapism and high ideals that were so important to the original trilogy. He wraps the prequel story up nicely, and now the whole dynamic of the Episodes IV-VI has been changed forever. We finally understand so much more about the history of Skywalker and Obi-Wan.
The special effects are all top notch, with space battles, highly detailed alien worlds and epic lightsaber duels. David Tattersall's cinematography is gripping and beautiful at the same time. The gradual seduction of Anakin and his subsequent transformation into Darth Vader are both striking and tragic at the same time, and the smashed hope for balance of the Force leaves everyone involved irreparably altered. When Vader finally appears in his traditional outfit, the reaction is not that of subtle dread, but instead a sad, heartrending sigh at the twisting of good into evil. With it, James Earl Jones' voice brings an unexpected tinge of heartbreaking emotion. This is Lucas at his finest.
The film is not without its flaws, however. The romance between Anakin and Padmé still seems stilted and forced, and neither Christensen nor Portman deliver their lines with very much conviction. Lucas is so concerned with telling the story of the fall of the Republic that he puts these two characters on autopilot for most of the film. It's really the relationship between Anakin and the Jedi council, particularly Kenobi that drives this film. Christensen and Portman, however, have both grown comfortably into their characters, so the audience accepts their actions perhaps more than the screenplay deserves.
McGregor remains serviceable but not overly enthusiastic as Obi-Wan, with a few hints of the sage he will be for Luke Skywalker in the next chapter. Frank Oz still gives Yoda a sad but optimistic wisdom, and McDiarmid brings a lively performance to the table as Darth Sidious.
"Revenge of the Sith" is also a surprisingly nuanced film, with a special nod to moral ambiguity on the part of the Jedi Council. In this film, more than the previous two, we learn that the sad fate of the Jedi may indeed have been equally due to their own attempts to control power as it was the Dark Lords attempts to destroy them. By seeking to deny passions and emotion, they created the perfect atmosphere of restraint to force Anakin to seek other venues for relieving his grief.
"Revenge of the Sith" is the darkest "Star Wars" film since "The Empire Strikes Back," and like that film ends on a down note but with an inkling of hope. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the film is that Anakin and Padmé's selfishness and arrogance led to the destruction of the Republic, and that their sins would be visited on the heads of their children. And while "Return of the Jedi" shows that Anakin indeed would be the one who restored balance to Force, it would be Luke and Leia who are responsible for keeping the peace. This is one saga that has earned its place in history, and this final film rightly sets into motion the events of the original trilogy. As Darth Vader once said, "The circle is now complete."
9 out of 10 stars. Despite a few flaws, this is the best "Star Wars" film since "Return of the Jedi," not quite up to par with the original trilogy but pretty darn close.
Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
A better epic drama than others, but won't stand out much against the current crop
"What is Jerusalem worth?" one character asks another at one point in the film. "Nothing," the other one responds, and then with a knowing grin, adds "Everything." "Kingdom of Heaven" is Ridley Scott's epic story set during the Crusades, where Christian knights and peasants from every corner of Europe converged on Israel in an attempt to control the Holy Land and fend off the Arab tribes that once help power over the region.
A young blacksmith named Balian (Orlando Bloom) is approached by Sir Godfrey (Liam Neeson), his father from an illegitimate relationship, who is heading back to Jerusalem and wants his son to accompany him. Fighting in the Crusades is said to be an atonement for ones sins by the Church, and Balian wishes to save the soul of his wife, a suicide.
Along the way Godfrey is mortally wounded, and he bestows his title to Balian, his only heir, charging him with the duties of knighthood. Balian completes his father's journey to Israel, meeting up with the other Christian factions that control the city of Jerusalem. Baldwin IV (Edward Norton), the king of Jerusalem, fears for the future of his kingdom. Terminal due to leprosy, the king wishes to maintain peace with Saracen king Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), whose forces outnumber the Crusaders 10 to 1.
The Knights of Templar, fanatics in Baldwin's courts who frequently raid Arab caravans, are in danger of upsetting the balance and launching a war. The passing of Baldwin soon puts one such Templar, Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas), becomes the new king due to his marriage to Baldwin's sister Sibylla (Eva Green), and plots to unleash his new acquired forces on Saladin. However, his campaign is a disaster, which leaves Balian in charge of defending Jerusalem.
Scott is certainly a director who knows how to mount an epic, probably the best since Cecil B. Demille, and "Kingdom of Heaven" certainly has all the right elements in place for a grand historical film. The direction, set design and costuming are all elegant and make for awesome medieval story.
But the movie also suffers from some PC tampering as well. Based loosely on a true story, the movie seems fit to change around some of the details to make certain characters more noble than they probably were. We're shown a Holy Land where Muslims, Christians and Jews co-exist peacefully, except for the more extremist elements in the Christian and Muslim camps. Balian in particular is shown to be fairly open-minded for his time, but in real life Balian had little problem killing the Muslims within his own walls. The film's a bit far-fetched but perhaps not completely unrealistic, still it doesn't ring true for the era.
Acting is fairly decent across the board. Thanks to his work in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Troy," Bloom can play the epic role in his sleep. What he lacks in dramatic range he makes up for with charisma. Jeremy Irons's presence is welcomed as Tiberias, one of the few Christian lords in the film not wrapped up in fanaticism, and Norton's role, while small, provides a tragic look at how decent ideals may have sustained the kingdom.
As Sibylla, Green seems to exist for the purpose of a trite and ultimately meaningless romantic entanglement with Balian, as well as to move the plot along in spots. Massoud on the other hand brings a sense of silent power to his role as Saladin, giving the character strength and decency at times but also a devious streak as well.
"Kingdom of Heaven" presents some excellent fodder for the summer audiences. The battle sequences are epic, with trebuchets decimating walls, arrows and swords flying and body counts mounting on both sides as both the Crusaders and Saracens battle for control of Jerusalem. Both desires for power, religious extremism and prejudice flow from both camps, and modern audiences can't help but sigh that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
"Kingdom" has to deal with the fact that over the last five years audiences have been assaulted with historical epics and the idea has worn out its welcome. The movie features fine storytelling and high ideals, but ultimately succumbs to melodrama. We're left with a story about how possible peace between religious groups was subverted by power-hungry zealots on both sides. If the movie wasn't so knowingly winking at the audience while wallowing in crowd-stirring speeches, it might have been a finer film. What exists instead is an above average spectacle which should enliven audiences but leave them with little new to think about.
Interesting, but not worth the hype
Fair warning: I've never read any of Douglas Adams's "Hitchhiker" books, or witnessed the television or radio shows. I went into the showing completely ignorant of any rules or expectations that fans of one of the most popular sci-fi novels of all time would come to demand from a big-screen adaptation of the legendary book.
I feel that while that put me at a loss for appreciating the in-jokes the way fans will, it also left me with a better footing to give an unbiased critique. So what did I think of this long-awaited comedy? Meh, it was okay.
Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) is in the middle of a mid-life crisis. Along with having a non-existent love life, his home is scheduled for demolition so that a new highway can be built where it stands. To make matters worse, he finds out his friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def) is actually an alien who was on Earth doing research, and that the planet has been scheduled for destruction by alien beings. Ford whisks him off Earth just as it is destroyed.
Circumstances bring the pair into the company of Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell) an egomaniac who happens to be President of the Galaxy, and Trisha "Trillion" McMillion (Zooey Deschanel), an Earth woman who Arthur coincidently blew his shot at courting due to Zaphod, who was on Earth by mistake. Also on board is the paranoid robot Marvin (voiced of Alan Rickman) who always looks on the dark side of life. The three are on the run from authorities because Zaphod stole the experimental spaceship Heart of Gold.
The group attempts to flee the Vogons, a race of slow-minded intergalactic bureaucrats, while Zaphod plots to take the ship to a near-mythical planet that's home to an ancient supercomputer. The group begins a strange odyssey that involves bad Vogon poetry, the meaning behind different social activities and discovering why 42 is the answer to the most important question in the universe.
"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" has all the right elements in place for a cult science fiction film. There's the goofy premise, strange worlds and weird gadgets mixed with wacky bits of social commentary. But the movie never gels the right way.
Director Garth Jennings keeps the movie going along at a nice pace, but that's part of the problem. Everything happens so quickly that we hardly have time for the characters to show much individual distinction. Special effects and make-up are quite good, especially the Vogons, who are tangible puppets from Jim Henson's Workshop and thankfully not some CGI abomination. Everything looks good.
But the movie can't sustain itself. It feels like a lot was lost in the translation to big screen. Either that, or Adams originally wrote the book concerned more with the situations then with the characters. Whatever the case, the movie plays like a series of mildly clever skits of people cruising around the universe. Sometimes it works, but most of the time it seems like the kind of screenplay a group off middle schoolers would have come up with after watching too much "Monty Python."
Numerous plot threads are created and then abandoned with little rhyme or reason, seemingly introduced to eat up screen time with ill regard for bringing the story to any logical conclusion. The whole production runs out of steam in the third act, despite a fun appearance by Bill Nighy as a contractor who builds planets. The finale is anti-climatic, halting the story, not resolving it.
Freeman is nicely restrained as Arthur, and makes a likable enough protagonist. Def is perhaps the best performer on display here, making Ford a believable enough character in these surroundings. Deschanel has little to do as Trillion but play a cliché love interest for Arthur. Rockwell on the other hand manages to be simply annoying in every scene he's in, but given his character that may have been the point. Rickman is the only really funny character here, making Marvin the robot's presence all the more necessary to stave off tedium.
So, is this the story that allegedly is so interesting that it's made the novel a worldwide bestseller? Perhaps it's just a funnier tale to read then it is to watch, otherwise the screenplay, cowritten by the late Adams, missed the mark completely. It's fitting that "Galaxy Quest" stars Rockwell and Rickman were reunited here, because at times "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" feels more like an unofficial sequel to that movie than an adaptation of a highly famous satirical adventure story. As it is, the movie is nice bit of diversion, but hardly worth all the hype surrounding it.
Six out of ten stars. I doubt even fans of Douglas Adams could be overly enthused by this lackluster adaptation of what I assume is a genuinely fun novel to read.
The Amityville Horror (2005)
Take it from me -- root for the ghosts
In terms of cinematic legacy, the original "The Amityville Horror" managed to foreshadow both "The Shining" and "Poltergeist" while swiping a few nods from "The Exorcist." But time has not been kind to the hit 1979 horror film, once considered spooky but now considered at best a camp classic.
The remake opens in the late 1970s, with George Lutz (Ryan Reynolds) and his new wife Kathy (Melissa George) getting what appears to be the deal of a lifetime. A colonial era Long Island home that is within their price range has just come up for sale, and the two decide the place would be perfect to raise their children, all from Kathy's previous marriage.
Little do they know that the house comes with loads of supernatural baggage. The previous owner had killed his entire family within 28 days of moving in, claiming there was a demonic presence in the home that drove him to do so. It's not long before strange things start to happen with the new family as well.
Chelsea (Chloë Grace Moretz) starts seeing the ghost of the previous little girl who occupied the house, Billy (Jesse James) and Michael (Jimmy Bennett) see supernatural activity while also being blamed for the trouble it causes, and George begins to go mad, taking increasingly drastic steps to maintain order and discipline the children. It's not long before Kathy begins to suspect that all is not right in their quaint little home.
"The Amityville Horror" is such a mediocre film, you can't help but wonder what was once considered so shocking about the original story. In truth, with all the negative reviews the original movie received, it's obvious that that film (and its numerous sequels) is merely famous for being famous. The thing that most people seem to remember is the front of the house itself, which actually is scary looking. It's just a shame there's never been a horror movie filmed in the house to do its spooky appearance justice.
The other thing to note is that the remake still claims to be based on a true story, which is partially true. The real life Lutz's account was eventually proved to be a hoax to cover up the fact that the family couldn't pay their mortgage, but not before the family made millions on everything from talk show appearances to the movie rights.
The movie never really lets you into the horror that is occurring, and director Andrew Douglas does a very workman-like job directing the story, never really doing anything to interest us in the characters or situation. Special effects run amok, like walls that ooze blood and jack-in-the-box scares like decomposing ghosts jumping out at you, but it's all for naught. The movie can only scream "boo!" at you so many times before you start booing back.
Acting-wise, the movie is decent but not terribly inspired. Just like Jack Nicholson in "The Shining," Reynolds seems to lose his sanity just a tad too early for the rest of the story to be believable. As Kathy, George manages to be the emotional anchor holding the film together and does a good job, however her character puts up with far too much stress before she finally acts. The child actors all do okay, but they merely exist to be put in danger.
So, what was the purpose of remaking a horror movie that hasn't aged very well over the last quarter of a century? The main reason I can think of is the house itself, which still manages to scare people. Other than that, there's a big market for remaking classic horror films right now, though hardly any of been able to justify their own existence, including last year's "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," also produced and written by the same team behind this film. "The Amityville Horror" is likely to join that undistinguished canon, ultimately being a horror movie about a group of people too dumb to leave a house just because the script requires them to stay. It's movies like this that make you want to root for the ghosts.
5 out of 10 stars. It's hard to feel sympathetic for characters in a movie who have to stay in a stupid situation just because the script says so.
Ocean's Twelve (2004)
A good cast's ego project calls horribly awry
It's fitting that "Ocean's 12" is about a heist; it feels like someone stole the cast and crew from the first film and placed them in an inferior movie. With such a talented group of actors assembled, it's a shame that this sequel lacks the inspiration that fueled the original.
It's been three years since the team pulled off the $180 million heist in Las Vegas. Time has eventually caught up with them, and Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) demands payback for his embarrassment. He gives Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and the rest of the gang two weeks to make good on the money they've stolen, or he's going to have them killed.
So Ocean reassembles his team, including Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt), Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon), Basher Tarr (Don Cheadle), and the rest. They head off to Europe to make some fast cash and repay Benedict. But there's a small problem. A rival thief who goes by the alias Night Fox (Vincent Cassel) is the one who tipped off Benedict, and holds Ocean and his team at his mercy. In a bid to find out who is the best, the Night Fox challenges Ocean's Eleven to steal the same prize that he is seeking.
With no choice as to other jobs to take in such a short time, the team reluctantly accepts. However, a contingency pops up in the form of European detective Isabel Lahiri (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a former acquaintance of Rusty's who has vowed to put the group behind bars. The team is forced to outwit both the Night Fox and Lahiri while still under the time limit imposed by Benedict.
"Ocean's 12" can't be blamed for trying. The first film was lighthearted enough with likable characters, but was a fully realized story that didn't demand a follow-up. The sequel in turn strains for credibility, and has trouble finding a coherent plot. The actual heist this time seems like kiddie stuff compared to the ultra coordinated caper in the original.
Director Steven Soderbergh directs the film with the same indie flair he used in the original, but unfortunately, this time the plot comes crashing down on him. The story doesn't have the same fluid pace, and jumps around uncontrollably. Soderbergh does his best, and the parts that work are due to his vision, but he can't make the movie seem like anything more than just a series of interesting scenes.
All the actors give a fine performance, but their parts seem less polished this time around. Clooney, Pitt and Damon are fun to watch, but unfortunately, they overshadow the rest of the actors. In fact, Bernie Mac, Elliot Gould, Carl Reiner and Shaobo Qin seem like they're hardly on screen at all. Julia Roberts returns in an almost thankless small part as Tess Ocean, who comes in to help the team. Cassel on the other hand is delightfully hammy.
But the characters can't really save a plot line that seems desperate. Some history tells the story behind that. The screenplay was once an original story, however Warner Bros. tapped the screenwriter to rewrite the story to fit a sequel for their hit original "Ocean's 11." This speaks volumes toward the sometimes shoddy storytelling and forced plot contrivances.
"Ocean's 12" probably won't have the same lasting power as the original. It's certainly fun to watch, and the characters are still a joy to see in action, but the talent that is on screen and behind it is what's driving this film, because the plot sure isn't. There are some neat twists and turns along the path, but the real theft being committed here is on the audience, whose good memories of the first film have been stolen and replaced with this inferior sequel.
5 out of ten stars. Might have been way better if the actors and filmmakers were concerned with the audience having as much fun watching it as they had making it.
Sin City (2005)
A fun ride down a twisted highway, with good actors in a disturbing B-movie
"Sin City" is one of the more accurately named motion pictures to come out quite some time. There's hardly a moment on screen that isn't drenched in depravity, sleazy filth and urban Gothic horror. It walks a thin line between art and cine-trash, and sometimes it gleefully drops into the abyss.
The story follows three down-on-their-luck individuals who inhabit the fiction Basin City, a town that has been digitally created to invoke film noir at its most intense. The first section follows Marv (Mickey Rourke) is a Frankenstein of a man, deformed in the face but built like a Tiger tank. He just had his first enjoyable night with a woman in a long time only to wake up to find her dead and himself being blamed for the crime.
Driven more by a twisted form of obligation to the beautiful Goldie then a sense of self-preservation, Marv goes on a killing spree across Sin City, hoping to uncover who was behind the murder. In another story, Dwight (Clive Owen) is creep with a sense of honor when it comes to protecting women, and roughs up on a punk named Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro) who's an ex-boyfriend of his current squeeze Shellie (Brittany Murphy). Their encounter leads to a confrontation that might end up shattering a truce between the police and a cadre of machine-gun toting hookers. Don't ask.
The final story centers on police detective named Hartigan (Bruce Willis) who stumbles on a child molester who just so happens to be the son of a U.S. Senator. Jr. (Nick Stahl) is left shot up by Hartigan, who is forced to take the rap in exchange for protecting the life of the girl who was to be Jr's latest victim. When Hartigan finally leaves prison, he goes searching for the girl, Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba), who has now grown up into an exotic dancer. Hartigan is left trying to protect a girl he doesn't completely know anymore from a mysterious killer known as the Yellow Bastard.
"Sin City" is a grotesque nightmare brought to life. It plays like "Dick Tracy" written for "The Crow" crowd. If Ralph Bakshi ever directed a live action movie, it would probably be something like this. Legendary comic book creator Frank Miller's graphic novels are brought to life in a world filled with dank back alleys and grisly executions.
What is really shocking about the film is the level of violence. Throughout the course of its run, there are be-headings, hacked off limbs, brutal gunshot wounds and people beaten within an inch of their life. There's even one scene where a man loses something near and dear to him that I'd rather not mention in a polite publication. Nothing is left to the imagination. It's all here, and it's a wonder this film was able to squeak by without an NC-17 rating.
Director Robert Rodriguez creates a believable noir world thanks to and mostly black and white photography with a few splotches of color and green screen technology. He employs it here much better than it was used in last year's "Sky Captain in the World of Tomorrow," but for much sinister purposes. This is a sick exercise in the surreal, and many people won't be able to stomach it. There's stuff here that puts the gore in "RoboCop" to shame.
The acting is above reproach, especially Rourke and Willis who really get into their characters. Elijah Wood shows up as a nearly feral cannibal in a performance that is light-years away from his work in "The Lord of the Rings." Rosario Dawson is intense as Gail, the lead gun-toting prostitute heading up O-Town. Owens and Del Toro are coiled balls of ferocity ready to explode. Everyone gets into their characters, and you forget you watching actors on screen.
"Sin City" is destined to be a cult classic, maybe even a box office hit. But each image reeks of human depravity and punishment that it become an endurance test to sit through it all. Fans of Miller's comics should get what they want, but for others, this is a relentless ride down a highway of debauchery that many will wish to exit at the first off ramp.
8 out of 10 stars. It's a visually astonishing motion picture filled with great actors, but you may want to bring a barf bag with you when you watch it.
In Good Company (2004)
Very tender and surprisingly enjoyable film about companies and the people who raid them
"In Good Company" asks the question of whether or not people can still remain decent in the bottom-line driven world of corporations. The result is mixed, and really doesn't delve too deep into the question, but this is a feel-good film, so that's not really the point here.
Dan Foreman (Dennis Quaid) has worked in the advertising department of a sports magazine for more than 20 years, and is surviving in a relative funk with his wife and two daughters. Things become complicated when he discovers that a major corporation has just bought out his company, and they're sending over an energetic young executive to increase advertising revenue.
Carter Duryea (Topher Grace) makes it his duty to impress the corporate CEO and launches into the department with plans for synergy between different companies. Dan is demoted and embarrassed to be working under someone 25 years younger than him, but stays at his job to help pay for his daughter's education as well as the unexpected pregnancy of his wife Ann (Marg Helgenberger).
Carter on the other hand is dealing with stress as well, including the recent collapse of his own marriage along with the demands to increase advertising turnout, and shuns some of Dan's old-fashioned techniques of impressing clients. Things really become complicated once he begins dating Dan's daughter Alex (Scarlett Johansson), who may be flying too far from the nest thanks to her newfound freedom.
"In Good Company" is really a slice-of-life drama, that's trying to coast somewhere between Hollywood tearjerker and indie statement film. It's not really successful at either, but the actors here give such good performances that it doesn't really matter.
Quaid continues to prove just how competent an actor he can be, regardless of the material. Like with last year's eco-threat disaster film "The Day After Tomorrow," he manages to invest so much more life into mediocre characters, that it becomes a joy just to see him up on the big screen.
Grace likewise is likable, though at times the movie's absurdity of placing him as head of the department becomes a bit too unbelievable. Once again, though, what could have been a botched performance, such as if the producers got Ashton Kutcher (who they originally wanted), is saved by a talented performer. Helgenberger and Johansson both bring restrained power to their roles, with Johansson as standout as the young adult trying to stabilize her life while still seeking out her career path.
If the movie has any really drawbacks, it's the final act where all the lose ends come together too neatly. A grandstanding scene where Dan berates corporate policy as well as a finale where the advertising issue are dealt with both happen in "movieland," not the real world where most of this film seems to have been taking place. Thankfully the director chooses to downplay these parts, without emotional music swelling to dishonestly play with our minds or the like.
"In Good Company" isn't a great film, but it's still a fun watch. Seeing actors such as these be allowed to play real roles is the delight here, and should appeal to anyone curious of how the little man with a vision tries to survive inside the corporate juggernaut.
8 out of 10 stars. Quiad and Grace give solid performances that keep the film from sliding into melodramatic pabulum.
Interesting but flawed Gothic comic book tale
Apparently God and the Devil made a bet. Not the one involving Job, but you'd think that after that debacle Satan would have learned his lesson. In any case, they both promised to stay in the background and simply influence people's actions, with the fate of mankind's souls being in a cosmic toss up. But every now and then, a demon decides to sneak around the rules.
Within this neutrality agreement lie certain people with the ability to see what's really happening behind the scenes. One of these gifted few is John Constantine (Keanu Reeves), a chain-smoking world-weary rogue who uses his powers as a mercenary exorcist in Los Angeles. Constantine himself has been to Hell briefly, having committed the mortal sin of suicide before being saved by doctors, and now is trying to redeem himself by sending demons back where they came from. Recently diagnosed with lung cancer, it seems that time is running out for him to get back in the good graces of the Almighty.
His life becomes complicated with the arrival of Detective Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz), a police officer whose twin sister recently committed suicide. Dodson suspects some sort of foul play is involved, and Constantine reluctantly is forced to agree when he notices a high amount supernatural activity in effect.
Realizing the balance is starting to shift toward the dark side, Constantine must decide if he can earn his way out of Hell on actions alone, or if there is something more to it then that.
"Constantine" is a movie that almost gets it right in terms of storytelling. Based on the DC Comic "Hellblazer," the film has all the prerequisites for a good fantasy-action tale. But it only scratches the surface in showcasing this world that the characters inhabit, instead relying on Gothic, moody film noir atmosphere.
First time director Francis Lawrence cranks up the action nicely, but is betrayed by a screenplay that assumes the audience is already familiar with the universe in which the story takes place. While it's nice to let the crowd fill in their own blanks in some cases, giving some meaning to the rules wouldn't hurt, either.
Also strange is the weird mix of Christianity with Eastern principles such as dualism, that is that evil and good have equal powers in the universe and both are necessary to balance each other out. The two religious views just don't mesh with each other, and as a result the story doesn't really capture either very well.
Reeves plays his role quite convincingly, perhaps because he already honed his "outcast Chosen One" skills during "The Matrix" trilogy. Burnt-out and perpetually throwing another cigarette in his mouth, at least when he's not coughing up lung tissue, Reeves manages to take a selfish, disreputable jerk and make him quite sympathetic. In the ten years since "Speed" was released, he has grown into the role of action star quite nicely.
Weisz basically does here what she did for Brendan Fraser in "The Mummy" movies play second fiddle. While she does give Dodson some much needed angst, Weisz is trapped in stock character, and can't bring her to life. Far more interesting but sadly underused are Tilda Swinton as very androgynous angel Gabriel, and Peter Stormare who camps things up nicely as Satan. While more time with the former may have fleshed out the angel's motivations, too much more time with the latter may have worn out his welcome.
"Constantine" beckons for a greater story to be told with these characters, and with any luck there will be. Just a personal nitpick, however. How come movies such as these have to be engulfed in Catholic imagery? Are there no Methodists ready to kick demon butt? Just asking.
7 out of 10 stars. Reeves acquits himself nicely and the movie is still good despite a lackluster plot.
Assault on Precinct 13 (2005)
Fun update of a classic B-movie, lacking the original's vibe but still awesome
When remaking a movie that is considered a classic, even if it's a lesser one, the filmmakers face an uphill battle to appease the fans of the original while winning over new converts, bringing something new to the story while honoring the first film.
"Assault on Precinct 13," a remake of the 1976 John Carpenter film of the same name, manages to do just that, giving some new life to the tale, although it does not supersede the original.
It's New Year's Eve in Detroit, and during the middle of a snowstorm the Precinct 13 police station is gearing up for its last night before shutting down forever. Sgt. Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke), a burnt-out cop still feeling guilty for the deaths of two fellow officers during a sting operation, is watching over the dilapidated station, located in a rundown industrial area. He is assisted by fellow officer Jasper O'Shea (Brian Dennehy) and secretary Iris Ferry (Drea de Matteo). Also on hand is Roenick's court appointed psychologist Alex Sabian (Maria Bello), caught in the storm after their session.
However, their routine night becomes complicated when a bus transporting prisoners is forced to take shelter at the station. Aboard are drug addict Beck (John Leguisamo), gang member Anna (Aisha Hinds), scam artist Smiley (Ja Rule), and worst of all, notorious murderer and crime boss Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne).
Inconvenience becomes terror. Bishop is a former crime partner with crooked police officer Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne). Duvall, fearing that Bishop will drop dime on him to the prosecutor, plans to have him killed. In order to get to Bishop, he has to go through the people inside. Deciding no witnesses is the best policy, Duvall orders his men to storm the station and wipe out everyone. Faced with the reality that they're all targets, the police, criminals and civilians inside Precinct 13 decide to work together to ward off the invading force.
"Assault" manages to be an action packed B-movie as well as being suspenseful, and features quite a few likable characters placed in a melting pot about to explode. However, for every thing the movie does to improve on the original there are an equal number of things that act as a detriment.
Director Jean-François Richet, making his American film debut, manages to nicely invoke Carpenter's gritty claustrophobia and cranks up the action to full-scale war at times, with a few brutal deaths to shock audiences. He directs with remarkable economy, using tight shots and unnerving silence to focus on the despair. He also effectively uses the winter setting, which gives the movie a desolate and foreboding feel that seems like a nod to another Carpenter film, "The Thing."
The acting department helps liven things up as well. Hawke manages to take a routine character and invest personality into him, showing his chops as a leader in a difficult situation. Indie star Bello and "Sopranos" alum de Matteo aren't "damsels in distress," and play their roles with a nice touch of conviction. Dennehy is less realized but is an accomplished enough performer that he gets the job done.
The real star here is Fishburne, who brings a Zen-like calmness to his character Bishop, honed from his work in the "Matrix" movies. He's smooth on the surface but a caged lion underneath, and commands attention in every scene. Byrne seems to be channeling his character from "The Usual Suspects," and does no wrong here. The only real fifth wheel here is Ja Rule and Leguisamo, providing the movie's odious comedy relief. To their credit though, they're not as annoying as they could have been.
Where "Assault" missteps is in its modernization of the attackers. In the original movie, the invaders were a nearly mindless, suicidal street gang. Here the attackers are an efficient paramilitary force, which really makes the possibility of the victims surviving a little ludicrous. But the film doesn't discount reality too much, and there is a genuine feeling of uncertainty here over who will and won't survive.
The violence is also genuinely shocking and harsh, the producers choosing to aim for a "hard R" rating. It catches you off guard, and doesn't play deaths just for thrills. It also gives extra weight to some of the kills, which is a rarity for most action movies these days.
Odds are, this new version won't be well-remembered 30 years later, but it still manages to be an entertaining diversion. The only unforgivable sin committed here is leaving out the original's synthesized theme song. It's enough to make me want to storm the fort as well.
Eight out of ten stars. What the movie lacks in originality and sometimes believability, it makes up for with interesting characters and a genuine desire to shock and entertain the audience, all of which sets it apart from most studio output.
Racing Stripes (2005)
Rudolph the Black-striped zebra...
January seems to have become the dumping ground for kid's movies that producers don't believe have a chance against the summer glut of blockbusters. Previous years have offered the mediocre "Snow Dogs" and the outright terrible "Kangaroo Jack," so hopes are not high for films released during this period. However, "Racing Stripes" is a children's movie that manages to find itself between being not particularly inspired while not outright terrible either.
During a rainstorm one night in Kentucky, farmer Nolan Walsh (Bruce Greenwood) stumbles on a baby zebra that was accidentally left behind by a circus. He takes it home where his daughter Channing (Hayden Panettiere)is instantly smitten with him. They decide to keep him, and she dubs him Stripes.
Stripes (voice of Frankie Muniz) grows up on the farm, which is next to a horse track. He dreams of racing with the other horses, but is constantly taunted by Trenton's Pride (voice of Joshua Jackson), a thoroughbred expected to follow in his sire's hoofsteps. Stripes is encouraged by his fellow barnyard animals, which include Shetland pony Tucker (voice of Dustin Hoffman), the motherly goat Franny (voice of Whoopi Goldberg), as well as newcomer Goose (voice of Joe Pantoliano), a wise guy pelican on the run from his fellow gangster fowl. He also has his eye on Sandy (voice of Mandy Moore), a jumping horse who finds him cute.
Channing also wishes to enter the races, and with no horses on the farm she has her hopes set on Stripes. However Nolan forbids her to enter the races. A former champion horse trainer, Nolan has given up his career after a family tragedy. This makes him the constant target of ridicule by track owner Clara Dalrymple (Wendy Malick), his former boss. Eventually things come to a head, and Nolan must decide between allowing his daughter to race or letting his own demons squander her potential.
"Racing Stripes" is clichéd and predictable, but it's still an enjoyable bit of diversion for kids. The sports formula is put into full effect here, but the performances manage to elevate the script above the mundane.
Director Frederik Du Chau, whose only previous work is helming the atrociously bad animated film "Quest for Camelot," manages to make the animal scenes quite entertaining. The human scenes tend to pale by comparison.
However, actor Greenwood is an accomplished enough performer to breath some life into his role. Adults in the audience will find someone they can relate to, and Du Chau was wise to hire someone who could give the material added meaning just by being a screen presence. Panettiere's Channing is less developed but still likable, and should have all the little girls jealous with her friendship with Stripes. Malick on the other hand goes the way of scene-chewing villainy with her role, which is a cop out but not terribly so. She seems to enjoy invoking cartoon vamp Cruella DeVil with her role, which manages to go mesh well enough with the animal scenes.
In the voice department, Muniz doesn't give Stripes much personality, but he's a game enough presence to make the character likable. Hoffman and Goldberg manage to underplay their roles, which thankfully add a note of drama to the otherwise goofy animal scenes. Moore's Sandy isn't distinguished but is sweet all the same, and Jackson manages to voice Trenton's Pride as a jerk who is still sympathetic, especially when you see his mean streak comes from a psychologically abusive father.
Pantoliano seems to have fun sending up his own tough guy roles from "The Goonies" and "The Sopranos." Less notable but still humorous are Jeff Foxworthy as bird-brained rooster Reggie and Fred Dalton Thompson as race horse legend and bully Sir Trenton. The only problem comes from Steve Harvey and David Spade, who as the flies Buzz and Scuzz provide the movie's odious comedy relief with tons of bathroom humor.
"Racing Stripes" is not "Seabiscuit," nor does it aspire to be. It's an allegory about prejudice and proving stereotypes wrong, just done with talking animals. While not particularly great it's still fun, which seems to be in this era of children's fare being mindless slapstick drivel almost more then we can ask for from filmmakers.
6 out of 10 stars. Not a great film by any means, but at least it's entertaining when not trying to be gross.
Macabre film proves perfect antidote to mindlessly happy Christmas films
Children's movies tend to be so light and uplifting that you can't help but feel you're drowning in cuteness. This is not the case in "A Series of Unfortunate Events," a film cut with both Victorian era sensibilities as well as dark dread of a Tim Burton film.
Life has not been well for the Baudelaire children. When their parents killed in a mysterious fire, the court places them in the custody of their theatrical uncle, Count Olaf (Jim Carrey). Olaf has his own plans for the children, which involve wiping them out in elaborate methods that would make Wile E. Coyote blush.
But the kids are not helpless. Violet (Emily Browning), the eldest of the Baudelaire children, has a knack for invention. Klaus (Liam Aiken) is well read and can tap into his extensive knowledge at any time, and little baby Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman) has a habit of biting things with her powerful teeth.
The children soon visit other family members as well, each with their own particular quirks. Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly) has a fascination with reptiles, while their Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep) has become very paranoid about how various things may come to harm her. However, whenever the kids are starting to become comfortable or learn more about their family's mysterious origins, Count Olaf pops up in disguise to ruin the proceedings.
The children choose to use their skills to fight off their uncle while simultaneously trying to piece together clues their parents left behind for them.
"A Series of Unfortunate Events" may be the first very dark children's movie in quite some time. As the narrator, Lemony Snicket (Jude Law) tells us, this is not a story filled with happy little elves and the like. The plot is filled with harrowing, depressing and shocking turns for the little children, but what happens is so over the top and tongue in cheek you can't help but laugh.
Director Brad Silberling gives the film the right surreal feel, a Gothic nightmare of a world where people such as Olaf are free to play deviously with unsuspecting children and the authorities remain ignorant of the man's true intentions. He brings an Addams Family level of the macabre to the story.
Carrey steals the show, playing Olaf with camp and scene chewing bravado while also showcasing a few of his own trademarks. However, if Carrey is the loudest thing about the production, he's also the most distracting. He commands attention in every in scene he's in, taking it away from the other characters who should be considered equally interesting.
The children all give great performances, with Browning and Aiken both playing their characters with nice touches of humanity in an inhumane world. The Hoffman twins are both cute as baby Sunny. Supporting actors Connolly and Streep both are interesting but are not on screen long enough to leave lasting impressions. Law, on the other hand, narrates the story with a dry British wit that feels perfect with the rest of the movie.
If "A Series of Unfortunate Events" has any problems, it's that the film is so episodic. This is not a surprise, since the movie is a combination of the first three books in the series, "The Bad Beginning," "The Reptile Room," and "The Wide Window." Still, the story just seems to hop from one bad situation to another with little rhyme or reason. However, in many people's minds that may be one the more addictive aspects of the series.
If you're looking for a family movie filled with cheer and joy, look elsewhere. However, if you want a dark tale that would fit in with Roald Dahl's output, then "A Series of Unfortunate Events" is just your ticket.
8 out of 10 stars. Carrey camps it up nicely, and everyone brings a delightful bit of gloom and doom to the holidays.
Team America: World Police (2004)
The best satire to come out this year
"Team America: World Police" isn't just a fun motion picture, it's the best time I've had at the movies in a long time. Tasteless, offensive and disgusting, it's the perfect antidote for a movie season loaded with too much political seriousness. A send up of the classic 1960s puppet show "Thuderbirds" along with empty-headed Jerry Bruckheimer epics, the movie reaches new highs by sinking to new lows.
The world is in desperate trouble. Terrorists are planning a worldwide attack, and the only ones who can stop them is Team America, an anti-terrorist squad that polices the world. Led by Spottswoode (voice of Daran Norris), the team recruits Broadway actor Gary Johnston (voice of Trey Parker) to infiltrate an Egyptian terrorist cell and gain information about the next attack.
Gary is at first unwilling, but comes around after an inspiring tour of the nation's capital, set to inspiring music, natch. But while they thwart an attack, they discover that there is an even bigger mastermind behind the conspiracy. North Korean President Kim Jong Il plots to destroy the worldwide infrastructure.
The team soon succumbs to personal problems, with psychologist Lisa (voice of Kristen Miller) and empathic specialist Sarah (voice of Masasa) vying for Johnston's affection, gung-ho martial artist Chris (voice of Matt Stone) harboring a deep-rooted hated of actors, and Gary harboring his own personal demons with his family. They must put aside their differences to fight for freedom and liberate the world from terrorists.
In someone else's hands, "Team America: World Police" could have been a very lazy effort, but Parker and Stone breath such life into the proceedings that one can not help but giggle cheerful despite themselves. The movie's title is obviously a knock at neo-con gunboat diplomacy, and right-wing military intervention around the globe is skewered effectively. However, self-righteous liberal filmmakers like Sean Penn, Alec Baldwin and Michael Moore are also trampled as well. The movie turns them into unwitting accomplices to terrorists by degrading American values.
"South Park" creators Parker and Stone continue to show why they're the most brilliant satirists active today. They refuse to take sides, pointing out the shortcomings of both right and left-wing forces, and even suggesting that the two are needed to balance each other out.
Like with the "South Park" movie, the film has a hilarious musical score. Only this time, the soundtrack is loaded not with spoofs of Broadway and Disney songs, but rather overly-patriotic fluff tunes like a Toby Keith-inspired flag-waving anthem called "Freedom isn't Free." Of course there's also the gung-ho going-into-action determination song "America! F*ck Yeah!" that wouldn't have been too out of place in a Reagan-era film, and the blatant anti-Bruckheimer love ballad "Pearl Harbor Sucked, and I Miss You" which takes some much needed swipes at Michael Bay and his horrible product.
The marionette puppet effects add to the zany nature of the film, and the facial expressions on the faces are amazingly well detailed. Of course, the bouncy way the creations walk is also part of the fun, as is the way they slowly move their arms in over-dramatic gestures.
That said, the movie is not without its problems. There is of course the much talked about scene of puppet sex between Gary and Lisa. The fact that what's on screen is already pretty disturbing, it makes you wonder just what Parker and Stone had to cut out to secure an R rating. Also, the movie oversimplifies the whole issue of terrorism by making it seem like all extremists are in cahoots, and that a good dose of quick American military action can solve anything.
To be fair, as a satire the oversimplication works as long as you don't take it too seriously. There's some smart messages buried in here, as long as you're willing to wade through the violence (puppets bleed, who would have thought?), sex humor and scatological visual effects, including what may be the longest puking scene in film history.
What remains is a witty bit of film-making for people who like something different, and that's certainly what "Team America" accomplishes with a gusto. While some Hollywood filmmakers insists on drowning their films with self-serving messages, it's good to see a film that lets a puppet holding a machine gun speak for itself.
8 out of 10 star. It's good to see Hollywood's sacred cows so thoroughly trashed alongside Bush-era military duplicity.
The Incredibles (2004)
PIXAR continues to prove its skill with this exciting, thought-provoking superhero cartoon
It would seem impossible for an animated film to successfully combine family quarrels, mid-life crises and living in a world that squelches excellence along with the exploits of superheroes, but somehow, Pixar's 'The Incredibles' manages to get it done, and done right.
Mr. Incredible's life is in shambles. Driven underground along with the rest of the Earth's champions, he is forced to live incognito in a world where superheroism has for all intents and purposes been criminalized due to excessive lawsuits from people claiming to have been harmed by their exploits. Using his alter ego Bob Parr (voice of Craig T. Nelson), Mr. Incredible now works as an insurance claims adjuster.
His wife Helen, the superheorine Elastigirl (voice of Holly Hunter) has been rendered a stay-at-home mom, looking after their superpowered offspring Dash (voice of Spencer Fox), who can run at superspeed, and Violet (voice of Sarah Vowell), who can turn invisible and create forcefields. They are all being smothered in the suburban setting, forced to hide their powers and accept life in an increasingly mediocre world.
That is until Mr. Incredible is contacted by a mysterious woman named Mystique, who is in need of a superhero. Deciding to relive his glory days, he sneaks behind his family's back to do super deeds. Helen becomes suspicious, but discovers too late what her husband has been doing. It seems a supervillain named Syndrome (voice of Jason Lee) has been behind the plot to get Mr. Incredible active again. She heads out to rescue her husband, but must also contend with her children who have snuck aboard her plane.
As far as a superhero story goes, 'The Incredibles' is downright amazing. Every cliché is covered, from the island lair to the cackling villain who was a former admirer of the superhero, however they are all dealt with in such a snappy manner that one doesn't really care that it has been done before.
Furthermore, this isn't just a movie about a family of superheroes, it's about family bonding as well. It expertly handles the mid-life crisis angle, having Bob and Helen both feeling stifled. Bob's desire to relive his youth puts him at odds with his family, and he must decide what is more important to him.
Sometimes fantasy can touch on social commentary better than most drama does, and 'The Incredibles' does that fine as well. The filmmakers use the plot as a clever ploy to make some sharp comments on American culture. Such as how excellence is routinely suppressed in favor of conformity, with everyone being forced to lower their standards out of fear of self-esteem damage to the less gifted. Bob remarks at one point 'They're constantly finding new ways to celebrate mediocrity,' and one can't help but nod in agreement.
The voice acting is top notch, with Nelson providing the right tone to suggest both an overstressed white-collar drone as well as a superstrengthed champion of justice. Hunter brings a surprisingly nuanced performance to her character Helen, and manages to handle both the mom and superheroine duties effectively. Lee is wonderfully sadistic in the villain role, reminding us of his smarminess in Kevin Smith's films. Fox and Vowell bring life to their characters as well, which is commendable among actors their age, and Samuel L. Jackson is funny as Mr. Incredible's ice shooting superhero friend Frozone.
Pixar has really outdone themselves this time, bringing moviegoers a film that is, well, incredible. While it's not quite as good as 'Finding Nemo,' what movie could be? It's action-packed, suspenseful, and full of positive family values, plus it's just a hoot to watch. 'The Incredibles' will appeal to anyone with a hero inside of them.
Shark Tale (2004)
Lifeless product of Hollywood groupthink, devoid of even the slightest inspiration
Had "Shark Tale" had even an iota of the wit and charm that seems to have little trouble finding its way into Pixar's creations, the movie might have been more enjoyable. At the least the filmmakers could have snuck in some funny social commentary through the veil of animation.
What we have instead is an urban, glib, lifeless product that is market-tested and ready for consumption. An empty ghetto-fabulous morality tale loaded with pop culture references and plenty of bling-bling but no heart.
Under the ocean, Oscar (voice of Will Smith) is a tongue-scrubber at a "whale-wash" and part-time hustler. He wishes for a better life, hoping to swim his way to the top of the fish social ladder, though his coworker Angie (voice of Renee Zellweger) thinks he should be happy with who he is, and tries to subtly drop hints that she's quite taken with him.
Meanwhile, great white shark and local crime boss Don Lino (voice of Robert De Niro) is planning to turn his family business over to his two sons, Frankie and Lenny. But Lenny (voice of Jack Black) is harboring some serious issues concerning eating other fish, and the godfather is worried his weak son with reflect poorly on him.
Oscar has problems. In debt to his boss Sykes (voice of Martin Scorsese), he soon ends up in hot water. However, fate runs him smack into Frankie and Lenny. During the scuffle, an anchor accidentally kills Frankie and Oscar is mistakenly given credit for the kill. Now a media celebrity for being a "shark slayer," Oscar rides his status all the way to the top, with Sykes managing his interests and the sharks fuming that their top spot in the food chain is quickly losing its power.
Situations soon escalate and Oscar and Lenny reach an agreement: if they fake a battle and Oscar emerges triumphant, he can keep his credibility as a shark slayer and Lenny can start a new life.
"Shark Tale" openly references "The Godfather" and "Jaws" at every opportunity, which in and of itself isn't too bad except that so little is made of the main plot itself that the whole move feels like a patchwork of other, better movies, just with a meaningless hip-hop attitude. The special effects are up to par but there's nothing really special about them. The audience needs a story and characters, not just choreographed dance sequences and goofy product placements.
All this might have been negligible had the movie actually been funny. This, sadly, is not the case. I only recorded one good laugh during the screening I attended, and that involved a shark voiced by Peter Falk whose flatulence had the expected effect on a henchmen. When a fart joke is the best you have to offer, then you've got serious problems.
The story also steals shamelessly from the 1942 Disney cartoon "The Reluctant Dragon," which featured a fixed battle between a loudmouth braggart knight and a pacifist dragon to keep the locals off both their backs. That story was at least short and cute, neither of which can be said about this debacle.
Along with the plot, voice acting is pretty lifeless as well. Smith gets to indulge his ego, playing his own persona on screen once again, this time in fish form. De Niro and Scorsese seem to be having fun spoofing their own tough guy roles, but that's about it from them. The biggest surprise is how much of a laid-back performance Black gives. His trademark manic desperation is nowhere to be seen, playing instead a shockingly normal character. Had he cut loose, the scenes he's in might have been more enjoyable. What's stranger is his hiding of his vegetarian leanings from his dad is handled like an allegory for a gay person coming out to his parents.
When is Hollywood going to realize it doesn't matter how many famous actors you get to do voices for your characters; if the story sucks, then no amount of acting talent is going to save it? There are three Academy Award winners in this cast, just don't use that as a benchmark for excellence.
This all amounts to another animated project from DreamWorks high on energy and low on inspiration. After "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimmarron," "Road to El Dorado" and "Sinbad" all tanked, it's clear that the "Shrek" series is the only good thing the studio has going for it right now.
Of course, there's no escaping comparison to that other computer animated fish movie, either, and that's when this film looks most wanting. Where Pixar's "Finding Nemo" swam the full depths of the ocean, "Shark Tale" seems content to just tread water in the wading pool.
4 out of 10 stars. Pretty to look at, but any movie that tries to push this much "coolness" down your throat is just asking to be despised.
Nice little action romp, short of plot but heavy on effects and adventure
As computer graphics are becoming more and more a part of movies, it only makes sense that eventually a film would come along that is completely computer animated with humans just inserted into the footage.
That's the feel of "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," a strange but fun fantasy/action movie inspired by the likes of classic sci-fi comics like "Buck Rogers" and "Flash Gordan." The characters are essentially live-action people walking in front of green screen images, but it does all mesh together nicely, if not too nicely.
The year is 1939, and several famous German scientists have wound up missing. When plucky New York reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) is contacted by a scientist who fears that he's next, she discovers a diabolical plot by a mad scientist named Dr. Totenkopf (Laurence Olivier, thanks to some digital trickery).
Totenkopf has unleashed an army of massive robots on the world, and the call soon goes out to Joe "Sky Captain" Sullivan (Jude Law), a well-known hero-for-hire fighter pilot, to come to the rescue. Fate soon brings Perkins and Sullivan together again, having once been an item but now bitter over a past incident that left Sullivan in a Japanese prison camp.
They soon discover that Totenkopf is using his machines to raid the world's power supplies, but to what end they don't know. Skeptical at first, Sullivan soon changes his tune when the robots raid his base and make off with his chief mechanic and friend Dex Dearborn (Giovanni Ribisi). Committed to the task of stopping the scientist and rescuing his friend, Sullivan goes after Totenkopf with Perkins in tow, smelling a story exclusive that's too big to pass up.
"Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" is a nice throwback to the old adventure serials of the 1940s, and the look and feel is certainly inspired by the Max Fleischer "Superman" cartoons of that era, particularly the 1941 short "Mechanical Monsters" whose title robots bear a striking resemblance to the ones in this film.
First time director Kevin Conran, also the screenwriter, clearly has respect for the source material of the era, and the movie certainly has a unique atmosphere to it. However, the problem is the visuals and production design command so much attention that the characters come off as ancillary at best.
As the "Sky Captain," Law gives a laid-back performance, not really in keeping with a world famous adventurer. He's certainly charming and handles the action scenes well, but he lacks the ambition necessary for the role.
As Perkins, Paltrow seems to be invoking the spirit of Superman's Lois Lane mixed with Underdog's Sweet Polly Purebred, and as such succeeds at being a nosy reporter who often get in trouble. But Paltrow never really brings Perkins to life, and she recklessly endangers countless numbers of lives and is never even berated for her actions.
Ribisi and Jolie both fair well though their characters just exist to advance the plot. It is Olivier's presence here that is the real eye opener. More than 2 decades after his death, the legendary actor is recreated for the movie in two scenes. It's a little disturbing to this critic however, sort of the digital equivalent of grave robbery. Along with the current plans to digitally insert the late George Burns into a new film as well, I don't think I agree with this usage of the technology.
Despite their shortcomings, the actors do give a nice try, but they're powerless against the scope of the film. "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" is a cornucopia of technical wizardry that's fun to watch and then instantly forget. If the plot had been tooled around with a bit more, it might have become something more classic like "Raiders of the Lost Ark." However, what we have here is a wonderfully conceived artificial world with no humans to inhabit it.
7 out of 10 stars. It's a fun little popcorn movie and a throwback to the serials of yesteryear, but it just can't come together as anything more than a series of interesting set pieces.
Great performances and music squandered in mediocre story
At its heart, 'Ray' is a great story stuck in a mediocre film. There is undeniable power on screen, and an interesting tale of personal struggle and worldwide triumph resonating in every frame, but the film is so jumpy and driven by set pieces that it unfortunately never comes together in the end.
Ray Charles Robinson (Jamie Foxx) has a lot going against him when he first arrives in Seattle to play at a seedy dive in the late 1940s. A blind, black piano player from Florida, he encounters adversity wherever he goes. His manager shortchanges him, other people refuse to hang out with him because of his handicap, and he has to constantly be aware of his surroundings.
But his music grabs people. He feels the beat every time he sits at the piano, and the house always comes alive, no matter what the size of the venue. Working his way out of juke joints and onto a tour, Ray is advised to drop his last name and just go by Ray Charles, and soon his star rises. But he isn't happy.
Haunted by the memories of watching his younger brother drown when he was still a child, he soon turns to drugs to escape his feelings of guilt. Discovered by Atlantic Records producers Ahmet Ertegun (Curtis Armstrong) and Jerry Wexler (Richard Schiff), Charles soon is given the freedom to write his own music and a phenomenon is born. Mixing Gospel style (but not the Gospel attitude he jokes) with R&B, his place in history is soon set.
Along the way, he marries Houston singer Della Beatrice Howard (Kerry Washington) who catches his fancy. But she alone can't satisfy him. Time away on the road and the temptations of showbiz overwhelm Charles, and he's soon keeping a lover in tow. Back up singer Margie Hendricks (Regina King) plays his most troublesome other woman, putting up a façade of business only while singing to hits like 'Hit the Road, Jack' but trying to manipulate him behind the scenes.
We get the sense in 'Ray' that Charles was a talented performer who was hampered by his own feelings of inadequacy, and the film is wise to show the quieter, more reflective moments of his life. But we mostly discover that his take no prisoners style of business and recording practices was a direct result of his mother, who taught him from an early age never to let his disability to him into a cripple.
Foxx doesn't just play Charles; he embodies the man in every way. He brings the musician to life in a way that is neither synthetic nor a caricature. Charles lives on screen through Foxx, who has made quite a transition from goofy skits on 'In Living Color' to a powerful dramatic actor over the course of the last few years.
Other performances range from mediocre to adequate, but King manages to bring life into her role. She's not unsympathetic as the woman who wants to be more than Charles' sex interest when he's away from home. And as Charles' first producers, Armstrong and Schiff manage to make a slight impression, although their roles in the film are rarely more than just ancillary and then forgotten once Charles moves on to bigger fish.
But 'Ray' never quite captures the right tone. It wants to be all things; a music biopic, a study of struggle and a life affirming treatise, and does all of them half-hearted. We never learn of Charles' first wife Elieen, and his frequent acts of adultery are just simplified into two women. The music is the movie's real saving grace, but that probably owes more to the myth of Charles then the testament to him here. What remains is a fascinating but flawed look at a man who himself was fascinating but flawed, and stands as a nice elegy to the life of the late, great performer.
6 out of 10 stars. The actors and music make it worth watching, but the story's so jumpy it feel like a rhapsody, not a melody.
There's Good Boos To-Night (1948)
Very poignant Casper cartoon
I was about 12 years old when I saw this classic "Casper the Friendly Ghost" cartoon. Figured it was an early one since Casper didn't look *right*, the same way Porky Pig doesn't look *right* in the old 1930's cartoons. But I digress...
Anyway, this episode in the friendly phantom's afterlife concerns him befriending a young fox todd whom he names Ferdie. I remember being happy to see Casper have a friend, as those who have watched the cartoons are wont to know that most people run away from him, screaming "A Ghost!"
Casper and Ferdie have some fun together until someone else shows up... I hate to leave you with a semi-spoiler, but the cartoon is only seven minutes long, so you can't really be too ambiguous. Besides, anyone who reads the IMDb synopsis of the cartoon can deduce what happens next...
The finale is a bit heartbreaking. In fact, it's probably the saddest I've ever felt watching a cartoon. But that only means that it moved me, which probably explains why I decided to write a comment on this particular cartoon and not very many others. Or heck, the fact that I actually REMEMBER this cartoon at all is due to its emotional effect on me -- I haven't seen it since. But the cartoon does end on an upbeat note, and I was pleased to see Casper and Ferdie happy again.
I'd give this cartoon 8 out of 10 stars. Second only to the Warner Bros. cartoon "Peace on Earth," this is the most I've ever been moved by an animated short.
Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)
It burns! It burns!
Criticizing the President isn't new. Nor it taking cheap shots at him. Satire is built upon the idea of making light of the institution while making a political point.
And "Fahrenheit 9/11" certainly does that with a gusto. It's biting, sometimes witty and often powerful, but does it deserve the praise it has received? Is Micheal Moore some sort of champion of freedom, or an ego driven madman? The truth is probably somewhere in between.
The film is done in the style of an investigative journalism piece. Moore, upset about how Bush has been conducting Presidential affairs since taking office, looks into the events leading up to September 11 as well as the aftermath, and makes some startling conclusions.
According to Moore, Bush dropped the ball prior to September 11 and then quickly used the event as an excuse to rally patriotism into a war cry not only against Afghanistan, the country giving safe harbor to terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, but also Iraq, whom Moore sees as innocent of the whole ordeal.
During his investigation he chronicles the history of Bush's business partners and theorizes a conspiracy involving the Carlyle Group, an international business partnership that includes, along with both Bushes, several Saudi oil barons and other supposedly dubious investors, including members of the bin Ladin family. He also interviews a Flint resident named Lila Lipscomb, who undergoes a transformation from military supporter to anti-war activist after her son is killed in combat in Iraq.
In terms of quality of a film, "Fahrenheit 9/11" is a vast improvement over Moore's last piece, "Bowling for Columbine." Here Moore is more calm, more composed and his target is a little more well defined, but it seems with the new film Moore's problem is his sin of omission.
There is no denying what is on film, but is it the whole truth? It certainly is thought provoking, and Bush is clearly shown in this film as an ineffectual leader who perhaps depends too much on other's advise. One memorable scene has footage of Bush sitting in the Florida classroom and reading the children's book "My Pet Goat" after being told about the World Trade Center attacks, almost unsure of what to do next.
But there is just too much circumstantial evidence and fooling around with the narrative for the movie to be a serious piece. What's more, like in previous Moore documentaries, it seems he can't be satisfied with the material he has, but has to mess with the storyline to make it overly dramatic. The footage with Lipscomb is powerful enough as it is, but the way Moore presents it, it seems like he was documenting a family from the very beginning only to have them suffer tragedy, when reality is quite different.
In an interview in Entertainment Weekly, Moore admitted that all the footage involving Lipscomb was shot after her son's death. It doesn't change the power of her arguments, but it does change the meaning of the segment.
"Fahrenheit 9/11" also points out that Bush allowed for members of the bin Laden family to leave the country following the September 11 attacks, and uses Richard Clarke as the most damning voice against this, though he neglects to mention that Clarke was the one who personally okayed the departures. Moore makes mention of a pre-existing plan to invade Iraq prior to the war on terror, but neglects to mention it was created in 1998, under Bill Clinton's administration.
Certain scenes in the movie are powerful but also seem out of place. One interesting segment shows Al Gore, acting as President of the Senate on his final day of office, being forced to repeatedly silence the congressmen speaking in his favor because of rules violations.
One funny scene has Moore trying to get Congressmen to have their children enlist in the military and fight in Iraq after an earlier scene had Marine recruiters hunting down lower income people in Flint, Michigan. The looks on the politicians faces are priceless, and speak quite loudly -- the children of powerful people don't have to risk their lives.
And that's perhaps the movie's largest faux pas. Moore is so vehemently opposed to a second term of office for Bush that he will put just about anything on screen to discredit him. If you want to see Bush bashed beyond recognition, and believe me, he does plenty of damage to his own reputation without Moore's help, then this is certainly the movie for you.
But it's also a propaganda piece, and one that's presented as a documentary. And that's the biggest thing going against the movie. If this was a "movie," it wouldn't be as bad since we expect distortions in storytelling. But documentaries, for whatever reason, must be held to a higher standard, because by their very nature they're meant to show reality.
I can watch "Woodstock" knowing I'm seeing a true presentation of the what's occurring on screen, but I can't say the same about anything Moore creates. His films are certainly fun films to watch and provide food for thought, but Moore has become too big a figure in politics for his message of the little guy to ring true anymore. Furthermore, in Moore's world there's no room for dissenting opinion. That's a world I don't want to live in.
6 out of 10 stars. It contains undeniably powerful imagery and human emotion, but it's way too biased to be a true documentary.
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
My Spidey-sense is all a-tingle!
A good movie based on a comic book is rare, and a great one even rarer. Stories of larger than life heroes fighting against villains on epic scales is the keystone to a great adventure tale in any medium, but being able to adapt a thrilling comic into an equally thrilling movie has proven to be nearly impossible time and time again.
'Spider-Man 2' is thankfully the exception, not the rule. Not only is this movie an excellent testament to a great superhero, it's also an improvement over the original film, which is quite a feat given how good that movie was.
Being a superhero is beginning to take its toll on young Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire). Taking time out of his busy life to fight crime is costing him his relationships with love interest Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) and best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco). His academic and professional lives are beginning to suffer as well, leaving Parker to wonder if he even needs to be Spider-Man anymore.
At the same time, Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) is planning on unveiling a new form of energy fusion with the financial help of Osborn. He has even constructed an elaborate device to wear on his back with long tentacles attached to it to help him manipulate the machine necessary to operate the fusion device. However, when an experiment goes terribly wrong, the device becomes fused to Octavius, who is soon driven mad.
Dubbed 'Doctor Octopus' by the tabloid paper Parker shoots freelance photos for, Octavius insanely goes on a crime spree to raise funds for another experiment. Parker is forced to make a choice -- does he live out his own personal dreams, or must he sacrifice his desires and live up to the responsibilities that come with his power.
The fact that 'Spider-Man 2' plays with the price it costs to be a hero is certainly what makes it so interesting. Not since the original 'Superman' movie has a superhero film series invested so much into developing the life of the normal, alter-ego. Peter Parker is clearly a real character, not just a liability that gets in the way of the Spider-Man action.
The movie has some awesome set pieces as well, including a lengthy battle between Spider-Man and Doc Ock that has them fighting over skyscrapers, bridges and eventually an elevated train. It's a fight every comic book fan dreams of, over-the-top, brutal, and full of nasty surprises.
Director Sam Raimi manages to invoke his inner demolition derby again, giving us the same insane camera work that he used to bring 'Evil Dead II' and 'Darkman' to life, only this time he's given more room to play. Raimi manages to pull off a miracle once again, making a movie that is completely his within the studio system, without compromising the integrity of the characters or disappointing fans.
Once again, Maguire gives a heartfelt performance as both Parker and the wall crawler. He makes Parker clumsy, goofy, intelligent and heartbroken, and Spider-Man tough, determined and brave, pulling off both sides of the personality flawlessly.
Dunst is amiable as Mary Jane Watson, but not really distinguished. She does give MJ a certain flair, and doesn't do anything to sabotage the character, but her performance never comes off as anything other than adequate.
Series newcomer Molina on the other hand is at his scenery chewing best, doing his best villain take since playing Snidely Whiplash in 'Dudley Do-Right.' He makes Octavius deranged but motivated by a good cause, which gives his evil a certain added punch.
Smaller parts do not go unappreciated, either. J. K. Simmons is funny returning as J. Jonah Jameson, the anti-Spider-Man newspaper editor who serves as the movie's comedy relief. Longtime Raimi collaborator Bruce Campbell also has humorous cameo as a theater usher on a power trip.
Special effects are of course top notch again, especially each of Doc Ock's tentacles, which have a distinct snakelike appearance. The webslinging scenes are still a joy to watch on the big screen, as are the otherworldly battles.
If 'Spider-Man 2' has any hindrances, its due to the sometimes hokey script and other unnecessary extras. The story turns maudlin whenever someone goes off on a tangent about the importance of responsibility or about how necessary a hero is needed. A funny scene involving Spider-Man in an elevator goes on a tad too long, and a wedding subplot is thrown in seemingly randomly and resolved just as quickly.
Still, 'Spider-Man 2' remains the best superhero sequel since 'Batman Returns,' and perhaps the second best of all time behind 'Superman 2.' It's rare to see a summer blockbuster get so much right, especially this summer which so far has been high on spectacle and low on humanity.
Heroism remains a needed ingredient in this Post 9/11 world. You can't help but notice the strong verve on screen as New Yorkers cheer on Spider-Man as he swings into battle. His is a struggle that is powerful because, as we know, under his costume he is still just a human being. If that doesn't resonate with audiences, I don't know what will.
9 out of 10 stars. This is everything a good comic book movie should be.
The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
Special effects extravaganza marred by doomsday politics
The typical disaster movie plays up our deepest fears and tries to balance them with human drama. At one minute people are running for their lives, the next they're cowered together, trying to outlast Mother Nature's fury.
The elements are usually in place for a good story, but filmmakers tend to overdo the human aspects and end up making the movie melodramatic. "The Day After Tomorrow" is certainly no exception, but thankfully the ultra-goofy dialogue that sunk NBC's recent disaster telepic "10.5" is mercifully kept to a minimum. Instead we have just a big, dumb action movie that's easy on the brain and filled with lots of visual treats.
Nature is a harsh mistress, and it seems she had enough of our selfishness. Scientist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) specializes in studying the climate patterns of the Earth, and has detected what might be the first traces of a major shift in the temperature of the planet due to global warming. His statements are of course met with skepticism by the American government, particularly by Vice-President Becker (Kenneth Welsh, who looks too much like Dick Cheney for it to be a coincidence).
Hall gets a sympathetic listener in Terry Rapson (Ian Holm) a fellow climatologist studying ocean temperatures. When his ominous warnings start to come true, Hall is forced to accept that the world may be heading for another ice age. Meanwhile, Hall's son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) is in New York at an academic competition, which is in the path of a massive tidal wave that threatens to flood the city.
"The Day After Tomorrow" is certainly loaded with some powerful images. Tornadoes destroy downtown Los Angeles, waters flood New York and then the city becomes a frozen tundra, and in one deliciously ironic moment thousands of Americans illegally cross the Rio Grande to sneak into Mexico.
It is a well-intentioned film, but like all "message-driven" movies its reasoning is absolute and the main characters are either fall into two camps: the noble idealists and the cynical curmudgeons.
It's been six years since the last time director Roland Emmerich destroyed New York, and kudos to him for managing to do it again with flare. He directs the disaster scenes with a seasoned professionalism, making them both intense and frightening, and he thankfully manages to downplay the melodrama so it doesn't come off annoying.
Quaid is the anchor that keeps this film together, and his performance as Hall is nicely even-keeled. He manages to almost make the conflict in this film believable, but he's still saddled with goofy emotional baggage. His estrangement with his son (a typical plot device in disaster films) is too ill-conceived and by-the-books to be powerful, as is the `heartwarming' decision of his wife (Sela Ward) to stay behind with a young cancer patient in the middle of a blizzard.
Gyllenhaal turns in a nice performance as Sam, playing the survivor who, to the screenplay's credit, manages to use reason instead of self-righteous bullheadedness, though he still does a few stupid things as well. It's still a nice star turn for the young actor, and he pulls it off without insulting our intelligence too bad.
But "The Day After Tomorrow" ultimately suffers from the major problems evident in the disaster genre. Its politics are goofy, the special effects outweigh the human drama and most notably its views on social Darwinism are hypocritical at best.
The movie suggests mankind should just accept that in catastrophes there's going to be massive casualties that people can do nothing to stop, but at the same time every attempt by the heroes to save the ones they care about, no matter how foolish a long shot it may be, is always smiled upon. Only in a disaster movie could a selfish decision such as leaving behind millions of people who need your help to seek out one's son be construed as altruistic and noble.
The science of the film is of course far-fetched to say the least, suggesting a major world-wide climate change could occur within a few weeks. The fact is global warming still remains a touchy subject, one that can either be proven or disproven with different data. Plus it's always disheartening to see a movie use a straw man approach to discredit opposing viewpoints on the issue by making them come from the mouths of people driven by that dependable goal of every movie villain -- money.
"The Day After Tomorrow" comes with controversy already built on the issue of global warming, but it's doubtful this movie will change many opinions. It certainly is a well made film with great special effects and likable main characters, but like all disaster movies it tries to scare people into submission. You better change your ways, or THIS could happen to you.
Still, despite the shortcomings of the film itself, it is an powerful reminder that no matter what your thoughts on the greenhouse effect, the fact remains that mankind is completely at the mercy of nature. It's sobering to be reminded that despite our advances throughout the centuries, at any moment disaster can strike and render all our accomplishments moot.
7 out of 10 stars. The movie is good for what it is, but please, less complaining about the evils of technology only to use that same technology when the survivors need it.
Smokey and the Bandit Part 3 (1983)
This is what happens when you make a "Smokey and the Bandit" movie without the Bandit...
There have been lots of dumb and unnecessary sequels throughout the history of Hollywood, but "Smokey and the Bandit Part 3" was sure a doozy. Really, a second "Bandit" movie was too much, but at least the sequel had the entire cast back and was funny at times. Neither can be said about this film.
Like with most bad movies, the whole central thesis of this film is wrong. Here, the crime is screwing around with story continuity. Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason) is entertaining as a foil for the Bandit, but making him the main character is just insane.
The "plot" to this little travesty is that Justice and his simpleminded son Junior (Mike Henry) must transport a plastic shark cross country that's going to be the mascot for Big and Little Enis Burdett's new fast food franchise in exchange for $250,000. However, the Enises intend to make his life miserable by impeding his progress at every turn, and even enlist the help of Cletus "The Snowman" Snow (Jerry Reed) to impersonate the Bandit and try to steal the fish away.
Along the way, Justice acquires a big, ugly female admirer, gets involved in motor hijinks, and tries to steal back the fish from Cletus and Dusty Trails (Colleen Camp), a former used car salesman who hooks up with the faux Bandit for no discernible reason other than it's in the script.
All right, at this point you're going "WTF?" and rightly so. This whole film is a mess. How can a movie filled with stunts and action scenes be so boring? Very, very easily. Just put together filmmakers with no talent or vision, give them a script that's hackneyed at best, and let 'er rip!
The movie is filled with stupid and pointless scenes. A long sequence feature Ku Klux Klan members attacking two black truck drivers is tasteless and poorly realized, and is indicative of the movie's general theme -- crude sequences thrown together with little rhyme or reason.
The only part of the movie that made me laugh was a brief sequence where Buford and Junior Justice are in a hotel room filled with sexual deviants, and each time they open door Buford comments on the situation. "Looks like a union meeting," he mentions, followed by "Get away from that or you'll get the herpes!" which are both just as stupid as anything else in this movie. An opening sequence spoofing "Patton" made me crack a smile, but that was all.
Reed is simply awful in the role of the Bandit, and plays the role like a third grader who got the part of a lifetime and can't stop gleaming. Maybe someone should have told him that being proxy to a legend isn't a compliment.
And of course, the big question is: WHERE IS BURT REYNOLDS? The answer? AS FAR AWAY FROM THIS MOVIE AS HUMANLY POSSIBLE! Heck, compared to this, "Cannonball Run 2" is a masterpiece. And yes, it did hurt to say that.
Gleason should have known better, but still, any moment he's on screen is a welcome relief in this turkey. His Southern-baked comments are old hat but this time, but at least they remind of you of a time when his character was actually entertaining. And he sure beats the endless amount of screen time eaten up by Paul Williams and Pat McCormick extra corny dialogue as the Enises. They're just bad. Really bad.
In the only inspired moment of the movie, Reynolds shows up in a brief cameo dream sequence near the end, almost like a bone being tossed to the audiences who stuck it out through the whole film. The scene isn't funny, but it shows that there is some sort of epic relationship between Smokey and the Bandit. The sequence belonged in a better movie, but sadly, that will never happen now.
What else? Oh yeah, what can you say about a race movie so bad that even Hal Needham won't direct it? His replacement, Dick Lowry, seems to have no particular talent of his own, and justly returned to directing television shortly after. Screenwriters Stuart Birnbaum and David Dashev worked on one more movie together, the 1987 comedy "Summer School" which is actually pretty good, but never wrote another script. I suppose it's best to bow out with something good on your resume.
One final note -- there is apparently a whole different version of this film where Gleason plays both Justice and the Bandit that test audiences were not very fond of. Reed was added for new footage to fill the gaps, which explains why he doesn't even show up until half an hour into the movie. I doubt the first version could have been worse than the finished product.
The first "Smokey and the Bandit" was at least a fun experience. This is just a third rate rip-off, even going so far as to shamelessly steal scenes from the first movie, only redoing them in horrible fashion. This whole movie is a lifeless, by-the-numbers effort, and completely devoid of any true redeeming qualities. Unless you really enjoyed the first two movies and have some sort of sick curiosity, I suggest you avoid this abortion of a movie at all costs.
Two out of ten stars. A sad waste of Gleason's talent in the final years of his life, and now thankfully a largely forgotten motion picture.