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War of the Worlds (2005)
Good, but not Great
This Spielberg film is no Jurassic Park or Jaws as far as action yarns go, but it is good entertainment. I am a fan of this genre, both sci-fi and alien invasion actioner, and I have been a lifelong Spielberg fan, but I could not say that War of the Worlds is worthy of the hype. Like, I would probably not even buy it on DVD. Also, the audience reaction was tepid at my screening... no applause or spontaneous cheering or laughing. People just filed out as soon as the ending credits started.
(spoilers) I felt that after an excellent and exciting opening act (with plenty of destruction and a thrilling chase), the film goes to sleep in a too long middle act (hiding and in-fighting among the humans), and finally limps to the well-known conclusion (I had hoped Spielberg would do something creative here, something like the Independence Day twist). Also I thought that there were too many lucky coincidences experienced by the main characters (like repeatedly surviving close proximity encounters with the very deadly, very scary alien vehicles). There is much maneuvering and drama surrounding the Tom Cruise character's imperfect relation with his kids, who remain consistently and frustratingly uncontrollable throughout the film despite the obvious peril and mayhem around them.
The Village (2004)
Not Bad.... Not Bad at All....
After some of the negative reviews and word of mouth that I've read and heard about this film, I was pleased at how interesting and coherent it actually was. I was reminded, as in most of M. Night's films, of a good Twilight Zone episode. The casting was extraordinary, full of Academy Award winners and nominees, all turning in appropriate performances. The sets and costumes looked authentic and practical also. The plot was a stretch but, skillfully, barely within the bounds of plausibility. I really liked it. The realistic 19th century rural village life was interesting and I thought the characters were appealing. The Village successfully conveyed a feeling of menace and mysterious creepiness (like the way Signs did). I guess I am glad that I did not pay 10 bucks at the theatre, but it is certainly worth a rental.
Garden State (2004)
Good for a first outing, but come on now... one of the best ever made?
I enjoyed this film. It is solidly crafted, interesting throughout, and funny. And I really like Braff, who is brilliantly funny in Scrubs, and Portman, who is a great actress and has a great future in store.
However, I tend to think that the hype on this film is a bit excessive. This film obviously struck a chord with many people. I don't mean to offend fans of this film, but I cannot comprehend why. I understand that this is a very personal film for Zach Braff, but his character and the film style reminded me a bit of Scarlett Johansen's character in Lost in Translation from last year, kind of a stunned lost soul wandering around quirky New Jersey instead of quirky Tokyo. The Natalie Portman character reminded me a bit of the Ruth Gordon character in Harold and Maude.... a free-spirit who unlocks the main character's repressed emotions (right down to the spontaneous dance). Perhaps it is "true" to Zach's life, but it is too personal and eccentric for me to identify with, I guess. There is no really outstanding imagery in this film that stays with me. And, I don't think Garden State is a film that I would want to or need to see over and over (like the two films that I mentioned above).
Therefore by the criteria that I adjudge film art, I would give it a good, slightly better than average, rating, but I would not rave and recommend it as one of the best.
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Great Sports Drama
This is an excellent, nicely acted sports drama meant to evoke emotions and I gave it a strong 8 rating (maybe an 8.75). It was a interesting and seemingly realistic glimpse into the boxing world, but the movie had far more to show about the great characters having heart, seeking redemption, having guts, achieving goals/dreams, being selfish, and being selfless. I was particularly impressed by Morgan Freeman's performance and voice-over narration reminiscent of his great work in Shawshank Redemption. It could have been just a remake of The Next Karate Kid, but in the third act, the movie takes an unexpected departure from the Hollywood movie formula, which made me admire this film even more. That is the extent of the "spoiler". Suffice it to say that it made a deeper impression on me about the nature of goals.
Tea with Mussolini (1999)
The Dust and Inconvenience of a World War
I saw "Tea With Mussolini" with high expectations, which made my reaction all the more jarring for I viscerally felt disgusted with this offensive screen soap opera (my apologies to soap operas) trying to pass itself off as high-minded, poignant drama. It's been a couple of years since I rented this, but I still remember this as one of the worst movies I've seen. I am not sure about the relation of the film makers to "A Bridge Too Far", but I was surprised to see footage from that film included in "Tea With Mussolini". The flawed illogical plot seems to repeatedly and frustratingly focus on the trivial background issues. Using WWII fascist Italy as a setting, every scene seemed to be a contrived set up for a melodramatic acting exercise. Assessing the acting performances separately and objectively from the ham-handed dialog and plot, most of it was unremarkable IMO, yes, even Cher. Perhaps this movie was based on a true story, but I felt it even mildly offensive to use the tragedy of WWII like this.
Finding Neverland (2004)
Charming, Well-Acted, Nice Formula....
I thought Finding Neverland was very good overall. Yes, it is one of this year's best, and Johnny Depp continues to be one of my favorite actors. It was charming and well acted, but I was not overwhelmingly impressed. The strength of this film is the enchanting telling of a story based on "true" events. The novelty lies in the interweaving of the real life story with the fantasy story of "Peter Pan", and since it is a fictional story about the development of a fictional story, I just did not find it that brilliant or innovative in the many references to the well known children's story. It kind of reminded me of the film formula of "Shakespeare in Love" (about the behind the scenes development of Romeo and Juliet) or the lesser known "Dreamchild" (about the development of Alice in Wonderland) or even "Santa Clause The Movie" (about the whole Santa mythos). It was well acted, particularly by Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, and the kid that played "Peter", his performance alone might elicit tears. Probably because of Kate Winslet and the late Victorian costuming, I was reminded of one of those Merchant/Ivory E.M. Forster English parlour dramas which seems to lend it a more sophisticated art-house ambiance. I would recommend it, but I think it would be just as enjoyable at home on DVD. Also, would I need to see it over and over (the true test of a future classic)? .....honestly, no.
The Onion Field (1979)
Did We Watch the Same Movie??
First let me say that this case was a tragedy and I feel for the real police officer victims. Perhaps I was missing the point of the filmmaker, but I thought this was a frustratingly bad film and a big disappointment. I remember the buzz about this film and the Wambaugh book but somehow missed it until last night when it was on cable. Until I brought up the cable guide that identified it as "The Onion Field", I thought I was watching some mediocre 1970s (Hollywood/Burbank) cop show because it was so full of pointless dialogue, stereotypes, illogical reactions, and poor police procedure. I am incredulous at some of the praise that other people are heaping upon this... heap. I understand that it was a true story and that we are supposed to be frustrated at the legal system and the police investigation, but was the "real" dialogue/transcript from this case this inarticulate and pointless? Apparently, the jury came to the correct conclusion anyway, but in this film they made the James Woods character out to be some legal, debating wonder that frustrates the prosecution and mesmerizes the judges into inaction. After watching so much tighter dialogue actually containing cogent points in shows like Law and Order, I was not buying it here. Even in "obstructionist" defense cases, there should be some logical basis or the judge would just dismiss the motion. So we repeatedly see the defense's ramblings, but not the prosecution's counterpoint. Perhaps it is authentic to the time period, but I thought the depicted police procedure was poor (the interviews, weapon security, car approaches, searches, control of suspects). And, I'm sorry, but the drill and ceremonies at the funeral scene was almost laughable... from Savage's poor bent-wrist salute to the inept flag folder. I watched this car wreck of a movie with morbid fascination. The clincher was the dramatic epilogue with the wife and bag piper boy. To me, it all just looked and sounded like a bad Hollywood made for TV movie of the week.
So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993)
My Favorite Mike Meyers Comedy
Also, one of my favorite of all comedies. The Scottish family humor is the funniest stuff, I think. It should be a sit-com, or a recurring sketch on SNL. (possible spoilers)
I just love the way Myers says "Gargantuan cranium" and "virtual planetoid" in the Scottish accent, and watching Anthony LaPaglia try to keep from bursting out in laughter through the whole scene. I had hoped for years that Mike Myers would re-visit the Scottish family humor because it was tears in your eyes hilarious. I think we got some of that in Shrek and also the big fat villain in Austin Powers. Great cast with lots of known actors and comedians in minor roles, and great locations in and around SF. Though it was a comedy reality, it rang true for me. I knew a guy just like Charlie McKenzie in college, living the cool "artist" life in the city with no apparent means of support. He just hung out at coffee houses, smoking cigarettes, wearing his worn black jacket with a poetry book in the pocket, and frequenting open mike nights.
Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004)
RE: Apocalypse is about what I expected, your garden variety sizzling hot women with guns shooting zombies movie. It won't be one of the top contenders for the Oscars this year. Just get a big bag of popcorn extra butter, turn off the brain for awhile, and enjoy! It was a great movie to cap off the end of the summer season. I had a few minor logical problems with the (simple) plot. And the director/cinematographer chose to use that extremely close/blurry camera, jumpy-cut editing style which seems to be in vogue right now (see Bourne Supremacy), which made some of the hand-to-hand fighting difficult and dizzying to follow. I detected an homage or two to other zombie flicks, but it is hard to tell as this genre is full of classic clichés (by now, everyone knows the "rules" of a zombie movie, just as everyone knows the "rules" of a vampire film).
I liked that the story picked up right where the last one ended i.e. the scene where Milla Jovovich walks out of the hospital half-clothed and grabs a shotgun out of a police car in the chaotic ruins of Racoon City.
Sienna Gullory, the other female lead, is mesmerizing on-screen as she very much looks and acts like a video game character (a super, smokin' hot video game character BTW). Michelle Rodriguez in the last film did the tactical commando/gunplay stuff better, IMO, but I'm not complaining.
The Shadow (1994)
Not Bad... Actually A lot of Fun
As a fan of the old-time radio Shadow and the adventure (cliffhanger) serial style, ala Raiders of the Lost Ark, I thought that this was quite a passable movie adaptation of The Shadow, and certainly not as bad as I was led to believe by movie critics. I thought the art direction and production design were excellent, and the campy melodramatic dialogue and acting blended with it to create an atmosphere that felt very authentic to the radio programs (which were originally aimed at an audience of teen boys huddled eagerly around their radios with their Shadow rings in the late 1930s). It's not the greatest movie, but I thought it was a lot of fun. I would buy this on DVD if they had a letterbox version.