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Knight Rider: Knight Rider (2008)
Looks Really Cool, But Looks Aren't Everything
Full disclosure: I was a teenager when the original "Knight Rider" aired back in the early 1980s. The whole "Solitary Samaritan" thing, a device for which this show was known, is something I like (See "The Incredible Hulk" or -- to a certain extent -- "The A-Team"), and as cheesy as the original looks today, it still holds on to much of its charm.
That said, I awaited the new "Knight Rider" with baited breath. With all that is possible with 21st-Century visual effects and technology, I wanted to see what they can do with one my favorite adolescent chestnuts. I watched the pilot. I saw viable technology with some "Gee-whiz" factor thrown in. I saw Michael and his comely comrade get into a scrape and, with KITT's help, they escaped unharmed. And KITT's transformation sequences were a real attention-getter, until I noticed a severe continuity problem. In one episode, Michael tells KITT to switch back to normal mode in a secluded area to avoid it ending up as video footage on YouTube, yet KITT frequently transforms in public areas (Vegas in broad daylight, for example). Still, I think they did well with KITT, and the fact that they landed Val Kilmer as its voice was a real "get".
Now to what is wrong with the show. Michael (Justin Bruening) is a lunkhead. Oh, he looks hunky to pass off as a young Hasselhoff, but at least Hasselhoff can act. Michael's on-again-off-again relationship with Sarah (Deanna Russo) is actually well done, but there's no chemistry! Russo does a fine job, but Bruening doesn't click for me.
You know who does click, though? Billy (Paul Campbell) and Zoe (Smith Cho). These two are actually good enough to keep this show afloat, especially since NBC's announcement that the cast is getting trimmed and the show's focus will be more like the original's "Solidary Samaritan" formula.
If you ask me, saying that the second bananas far exceed the leads speaks volumes. If this "new direction" doesn't work, then maybe NBC should resuscitate last year's cancelled "Bionic Woman". At least that show was interesting; it was just an unfortunate casualty of the Writer's Strike of 2007-08.
United 93 (2006)
Heightened Sense of Realism Gives an Extra Punch
From the first frame of "United 93", it became obvious to me that writer/director Paul Greengrass was very well aware of the sensitive subject matter of this movie. I remember vividly the events of September 11, 2001, as do many of us, and this movie delves into the motivation of the passengers of the ill-fated United Airlines Flight 93, and why it crashed into a Pennsylvania field instead of a Washington, DC, landmark, as the hitchhikers had intended to do.
Every shot in this movie was hand-held, giving it a documentary feel. Every passenger captured on-camera at the terminal looked and acted so real, I thought I was in the terminal with them. Let me say, for the record, it is not easy for me to become that involved with a movie, but I did here.
I also want to give kudos to Greengrass for adding even more to the realism of "United 93" because of its cast. The crew of the airliner were real pilots and flight attendants (some of them employed by United Airlines). Many of the air traffic controllers were real, as were many of the military personnel featured in the movie. As an added bonus, some people actually played themselves. I'm not talking CNN anchors, either. Some of the people in this movie were reenacting their experiences on that fateful day, and I found them completely believable.
"United 93" is not the kind of movie you would "pop into the DVD player". But I would recommend that everyone give it a viewing. It provides a unique perspective of that day without being preachy, trite, or contrived.
Monster House (2006)
Not as Magical as It Could Be, But Fun to Watch
I have been a fan of feature animation since I was a child. Since the advent of computer-animated features in the mid-1990s, I believe that this technology has the potential of growing ever more powerful with each passing year. But there is a caveat: Power is useless if you don't know how to use it.
And on that note, I give you "Monster House". In this film, some neighborhood kids believe a house occupied by a crotchety old man is haunted. Many of us can identify with this kind of tale; even I knew of a house or two in my old neighborhood that no one went to. The lights are never on, the landscaping is shoddy, it's in some state of disrepair. Whatever the reason, a house like this becomes the subject of some exaggerated urban tale among the 11-to-13-year-old set, and it just seems to grow wilder every month. There have been other films like this in the past, my favorite of which is "The Sandlot", and there are moments in which "Monster House" tries to duplicate that sense of exaggeration, but it doesn't quite succeed.
The technology behind the making of this movie was groundbreaking, in that it's not a traditional CG-animated film. Instead, it uses motion-capture technology to enhance the performances (by both the actors and the characters), as well as a new kind of editing platform that allows for a more "organic" feel to the camera motions (even a hand-held effect). For that, I was impressed by the look of this movie. "Toy Story" (1995) will always be a classic, but this technology would have made it a different movie with a completely different feel to it.
Overall, the characters were fairly well-rounded. Even though I thought Mr. Nebbercracker's motivation was a bit hokey (to say why would mean a Spoiler Alert), I still found it somewhat believable. I did enjoy the actors' performances in this movie, too (they didn't just speak -- they acted on a motion-capture stage).
Still with all the cool technology and the director landing his "dream cast" (watch the Special Features, and you'll see what I mean), "Monster House" turned out to be an enjoyable movie, but not a magical one.
National Treasure (2004)
Enjoyable Family-Friendly Caper
I heard big things about this movie from the get-go, and I must say that most of those things are right. When Jerry Brickheimer started producing films for Disney, I began to wonder why. But in the end, it looks like a good marriage. To date, the Bruckheimer/Disney team seems to fare pretty well, and "National Treasure" is a testament to that union.
Nicolas Cage stars as Benjamin Franklin Gates, with Jon Voight playing his father, Patrick Henry Gates. And Christopher Plummer makes a brief appearance as Ben's grandfather, John Adams Gates (do you see a pattern here?). Okay, enough about the Gates family. I thought it was an interesting way to present the Gates family and their ties to American history.
The whole movie centers around the Declaration of Independence, on the back of which lays the final clue for the secret location of the legendary Treasure of the Knights Templar. Early in the film, Gates leads a party to a clue that points to the Declaration, and some of that party, lead by the "questionably legal" Ian Howe (Sean Bean), split off. From this moment, the chase is on.
Gates and his assistant, the eager Rigley Poole (Justin Bartha) try to warn authorities, but all of them, including archivist Dr. Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), laugh them off. At this point, any further plot points may be considered spoilers for those who haven't seen this movie yet, so I will stop here.
For the most part, the performances were pretty good, though I did have a hard time believing Jon Voight as 30 years younger in the opening scene, which takes place in 1974. The wig and make-up he wore didn't help much, either (It's almost as bad as that awful get-up he wore as Howard Cosell in "Ali").
I did enjoy the action scenes for the most part. There were a couple of chase-scene clichés thrown in, but they still worked. And for those of you who wonder if your child can watch this movie, it's okay, trust me. The creepiness factor is at most moderate (a few brief glimpses of long-dead bodies), there is some gun-play (but only from the bad guys, and no one gets hurt), only one person dies (off-camera), and I can recall maybe one or two (very) mild profanities. Besides, it's a PG-rated Disney film.
One thing I can say about this movie is that it is somewhat reminiscent of action films of the late-1940s and early-1950s. This is an enjoyable family-friendly movie, and it will entertain you and make you think (but not too much).
A Flawed Work of Art
There are very few names that inspire people to become actors. Not movie stars, but actors. Among them are Marlon Brando, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, and Sir Laurence Olivier. Having already some familiarity with the works of William Shakespeare (by no means, am I an expert, but I know some things), I judged it was time to see how Olivier himself treated one of the Bard's most famous works.
Well, the first impression I got from watching this movie is that it is quite obviously a labor of love. Olivier was an avid practitioner of Shakespeare, and this movie is his tribute. And, one thing I can say about this version of Hamlet is that it appears to be a more faithful interpretation, rather than an adaptation with whole scenes taken out for the sake of time, continuity, and/or to keep the audience's attention. While ambitious, the results are mixed.
First, let's cover what I did like about the movie. On the top of that list is Jean Simmons as Ophelia. Her performance was nearly flawless as Hamlet's girlfriend, who loses her mind after her father's death. Another surprise I spotted was character actor Stanley Holloway (Liza's father in "My Fair Lady") as the gravedigger in the "Alas, poor Yorick" scene. And the swordfight finale was well choreographed.
Now, for what I felt was lacking. Many of the actors in this movie (particularly Basil Sydney, who played King Claudius) appeared wooden. Even Olivier himself looked like he had succumbed to mediocre performance at times. A lot of the lines sounded like they were phoned in, and Polonius (Felix Aylmer) sounded too much like he was dispassionately reading from "Poor Richard's Almanac" while dispensing his wisdom to his children, Ophelia and Laertes (Terence Morgan).
As Hamlet himself said, "The play's the thing", but this is a play put on film. With that, there is an inherent problem with its presentation: Sometimes, it doesn't translate well. While I am sure that on stage, this was phenomenal, on screen it is hit-and-miss. But, like I said, it was a labor of love, and it does mark two firsts in Oscar history: The first movie directed by its star, and the first independent film, to win Best Picture.
For purists and those who study Shakespeare, this presentation is the one to watch. It's a no-frills, camera-eye view of the play utilizing a single set. But this is not just another movie to watch for the sake of watching it. It has been said that true art has flaws, and by that very definition, Olivier's "Hamlet" is art, warts and all.
Gentleman's Agreement (1947)
Compelling Subject Matter, but Less Than Stellar Peck and Kazan
If there is one thing that everyone can agree about Elia Kazan, it is that he was controversial. In "East of Eden", Lana Turner's character had a child out of wedlock (something heavily frowned-upon in those days). In "On the Waterfront", he used Mafia control of dock unions as a metaphor for the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee (better known as the McCarthy Hearings). And Kazan himself faced much criticism for testifying at those very hearings in 1952, so much so that in 1999, when he received his Honorary Academy Award, many audience members protested by remaining in their seats. Well, I think his path down the road of controversy begins here, with 1947's "Gentleman's Agreement".
The term "gentleman's agreement" means an unwritten rule which basically states that Jews are not permitted to patronize businesses, get jobs, or find a place to live, simply because they're Jewish. Author Laura Z. Hobson tackled the issue with a story she was sure would never sell. To everyone's surprise, it did sell, and it did open eyes, and Darryl F. Zanuck snapped up the rights to the book and put Elia Kazan in the driver's seat.
Ironically, many members of Hollywood's elite (more than a few of whom were Jewish) tried to convince Zanuck to not go forward with the movie. They wanted the subject to remain quiet, so no feathers could get ruffled. All that did was press the project forward, with the "keeping it quiet" topic addressed in an early scene of the film itself. Okay, enough history; let's talk about the movie. Gregory Peck stars as Schuyler Green, a freelance writer sent to New York to write a series of articles about anti-Semitism. At first, he's cool to the idea, until the day he tries to explain to his son (Dean Stockwell -- yes, of "Quantum Leap" fame) what anti-Semitism is. After stewing over his "angle" for a few days, it dawns on him: He will call himself by his first name (Phil), tell everyone he's Jewish, and he will see for himself how they are really treated. Some the results of his research are surprising. Without throwing up a Spoiler Alert, let me just say that he discovered anti-Jew behavior everywhere, even "within the ranks", so to speak.
The subject matter of this movie is quite compelling, but I still had problems with the film itself, especially with its romantic angle. Dorothy McGuire plays Kathy, a divorced schoolteacher and niece to the magazine's publisher, but her scenes with Peck were quite melodramatic, almost to the point they nearly upstaged the main plot of the film. And Gregory's Peck's performance appeared wooden to me. Oh, I found believability in his character, but his acting looked "paint-by-numbers" to me, as if Peck himself was thinking "Oh, yeah, I should put on my hat now". John Garfield and Celeste Holm are much better cast as Phil's friend Dave Goldman (a Jewish Army captain) and Anne Dettrey (fashion editor of Smith's Weekly Magazine).
The script had some problems, too. The undercover Jewish reporter side of the story was fine, it was the romantic side. And Kazan's direction also appeared that way, too. I'm not going to outright say that Kazan fumbled with this one, but he did direct and co-write this movie.
To me, Gentleman's Agreement could have been a better film, but unfortunately, it wasn't. True, it was quite a groundbreaker in its day, and very few films addressed the issue of Anti-Semitism prior to this one. But there was one film, released in 1940, which (at the time) drew much fire and criticism for tackling the same issue head-on, and it was a far more brilliant motion picture: Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator".
The Incredibles (2004)
Pixar Does It Again!
Okay, I'll admit it. I'm in my 40s as of this writing, and I am still nuts about animation! When Pixar and Disney teamed up for "Toy Story" in 1995, my mind was sufficiently boggled. Then came "A Bug's Life", "Toy Story 2" and "Monsters, Inc.", and then other studios chimed in with their CG features, including "Shrek" and "Ice Age".
But this film is the one we're talking about, and "The Incredibles" shines as yet another feather in the Pixar/Disney cap. The movie begins with an event which leads to lawsuits and government intervention, forcing all the superheroes of the world into hiding. It asks "What if a family of supers had to lead normal lives?" and the answer seems clear: Dad hates his boring cubicle job, Daughter would much rather be invisible, Son lashes out too much, while Mom tries desperately to keep it all together.
I won't get into the plot beyond this, but I will say there are references to some of sci-fi's best in this movie. I easily spotted gags representing "Star Trek", "Star Wars", "The X-Men" and Disney's own "The Black Hole". I'm sure there are more; I guess repeat viewings are in store in order to catch them.
The voice cast is top-rate (Disney almost never fails on this front), with Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson, and Jason Lee leading an excellent cast. Longtime Pixar fans will also notice Wallace Shawn as Bob Parr's overbearing boss, and John Ratzenberger maintains his tradition of contributing to every Pixar film to date.
The animation quality is eye-popping, too. How Pixar seems to outdo themselves repeatedly is beyond me. I was particularly impressed with one shot involving a waterfall that parted so a vessel can pass through it.
Though it isn't quite as magical (or as innocent) as the "Toy Story" movies, "The Incredibles" is still first-rate entertainment for the family.
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
A Film of Rare Breed
The Motion Picture Academy honored the World War II era with Best Picture honors for films that explored unique perspectives of the war each year from 1942 through 1946 (with the exception of 1945). In 1942, it was "Mrs. Miniver", about a family surviving on the home front. In 1943, "Casablanca" dealt with the seedy underbelly of the black market, and how it was used to transport people persecuted by Nazi Germany to the United States. In 1944's "Going My Way", it was more indirect; a young man seemingly goes half-cocked, marries a singer, then leaves for duty. And finally, we have "The Best Years of Our Lives", a tribute to veterans and what became of their lives once their tours of duty were finished.
Dana Andrews stars as Fred Derry, a captain in the U.S. Army Air Corps who is returning to his hometown of Boone City. On his way, he meets a sailor named Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) and an infantry sergeant named Al Stephenson (Fredric March). Each man has a different perspective of their home town, as well as unique experiences from the war, even though all three served in the Pacific Theatre. And all three men bear their own scars of the war.
Though, like most films from Hollywood's so-called "golden age", this movie does have a "Hollywood ending", it isn't contrived here. The script by Robert Sherwood works well, and the performances by all the cast not only express the torment of men trying to fit back into their old lives, but also of their families and how they coped (or didn't cope) with them.
This movie is among William Wyler's best, and it would be the second of three Best Picture winners that he helmed in his career ("Mrs. Miniver" and "Ben-Hur" were the other two). It stands as a testament of among the best films Hollywood has to offer. As I have said already, the entire cast worked well together in this movie, one of the best examples of ensemble casting I have ever seen. But I give a special salute to Harold Russell, who plays the disabled sailor who just wants to be alone. Russell never considered himself a professional actor, and he had very few dramatic roles (mostly after 1980), yet the Academy deservedly bestowed him with not one, but two Oscar statuettes for his portrayal of Homer Parrish. I will not mince words here: Russell's performance is quite moving.
"The Best Years of Our Lives" is a film of rare breed. I say this because not many films explored the lives of military personnel after their experiences in war. There have been a few more recent examples, like "Coming Home" and, in a lesser sense, "Courage Under Fire", but this was among the first. It is a moving example of film-making at its best.
The Longest Yard (1974)
Mean Machine! Mean Machine! Mean Machine!
When I heard that Adam Sandler was coming out with a remake of this movie, I nearly winced. Not necessarily because I'm not the biggest Sandler fan, but because this movie is a classic in the sports film genre, and you don't mess with a good thing. Later, I found out that Burt Reynolds co-starred in the remake, so I figured it might be worth a shot. With that in mind, I rented the original and watched it again.
My first reaction was "So THIS is where that Skynyrd song came from!" (I'm kidding, of course). Burt Reynolds (himself, a former college football player) stars as Paul "Wrecking" Crewe, a disgraced quarterback who got into trouble in a points-shaving scandal some years back. The movie starts at the peak of his contempt, where, in a drunken rage, he assaults his wife, steals her car, dumps it into a bay, then tries to beat up the cops who arrest him (and this is all during the opening credits!).
The real story takes place when Crewe is sent to prison, where the warden (Eddie Albert) has a singular obsession with football, to the point that he manipulates Crewe into assembling a team among the inmates for an exhibition game against the guards.
Now, if I go any further, I will be forced to send up a spoiler alert. What I can say is this film launched (or re-launched) the careers of Bernadette Peters, Michael Conrad (of "Hill Street Blues" fame), Richard Kiel (who plays Jaws in two James Bond films), and Ed Lauter, who went on to have a prolific career as a character actor (including an appearance in the Sandler remake of this movie).
Some of the scenes seemed stilted here, and some of it was racially-biased (but this was Florida in 1974 -- They hadn't quite grown up yet), but much of the film holds up. By the way, the editing of the football game itself is among the best I have seen in film, and it undoubtedly was the source of inspiration of how the TV show "24" is presented.
ESPN calls it "the best sports movie, period", and there are many arguments in that favor. As for me, I'll take "Field of Dreams", but this comes in at #2.
The Longest Yard (2005)
Mean Machine Redux!
Okay, going in, I will admit freely that I am not the biggest Adam Sandler fan. I liked "Big Daddy" and I thought "Anger Management" was okay; you can have "50 First Dates". But this movie was very not bad!
But, the one thing I do like about Adam Sandler is the fact that the soundtracks in his films are top-rate. And this one is no exception. Every song used in this movie fit the story and the action to a T, and I really liked that the opening chase scene featured the same song (Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Mr. Saturday Night Special") as in the original.
But enough about the music. Let's talk about the movie, while it's still fresh in my mind. In a nutshell, I enjoyed it. Some plot points were changed around from the original (like relocating the prison from Florida to Texas). But for the most part, "The Longest Yard" basically follows the same exact story line of the 1974 original. I was especially surprised about the library scene, something I did not expect in today's PC society. In case you haven't seen this film (or the original) yet, then I will stop here about the story.
James Cromwell slips into the shoes of Warden Hazen well, and seeing Burt Reynolds (star of the original) lend his support as Nate Scarborough was refreshing. Chris Rock, whose work I have enjoyed for years, was well-cast as Caretaker. As for Sandler, he took what was a dramatic story with funny moments into an all-out comedy with serious undertones. And, in a tip of the hat to Richard Kiel, this version of "The Longest Yard" features not one, but two XXXL players: Pro wrestler Dalip Singh (all 400 pounds of him), and heavyweight martial arts fighter Bob Sapp (whom Chris Berman himself described as a "refrigerator with legs"). Throw in some former NFL players (Brian Bosworth, Michael Irvin), more wrestlers (Bill Goldberg, Steve Austin), and a hip-hop star (Nelly), and you got yourself a team (or two). And, oh yeah... Adam Sandler's in it too (Just kidding! He does a good job here!).
I liked some of the characterizations here. For example, Warden Hazen has a motivation for this football game of his (I won't say what it is, though -- That's what they call a "spoiler"); in the original, the warden just seemed absently maniacal. At the same time, Scarborough was too shallow. No offense to Burt Reynolds, but I couldn't help thinking that some people would watch this film and ask "Okay, so who's the old man on the team?"
Technically, this version flowed a lot more smoothly than the original. I also like that the editing style employed in the game (as well as in a basketball scene and some of the practices) was an homage to the original. To me, it seems that Sandler wanted to honor the original, while making it his own film with its own legs at the same time. If that is so, then to me, he succeeded.
If you like the original, don't be afraid to watch this. Believe me, it's worthy. If you haven't seen the original yet, then do so (After all, it's Reynolds in his prime). I won't review the original here, but I did post it.
So, there it is. "The Longest Yard" excels in some spots, falls a little short in others, but this remake is worth a look.