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Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
Even if this might paint me as a sick, animal-torturing fiend, I must admit that the violence contained in "Kill Bill Vol. One" brought a strange and twisted smile to my face. And why not? In the graphic callousness that has become director Quentin Tarantino's trademark, "Kill Bill" surpasses anything I have ever seen on the scale of bloodshed. But what makes it forgivable is how the whole thing is set up, with the brilliant use of color and also of camera styles that just makes the whole thing so SLICK. The plot thus far is pretty shaky, but I imagine that it will be tied up nicely in Part Two. A definite don't miss (unless you don't care for violence and then you are probably better off sitting at home knitting)
Open Range (2003)
Home on the Range?
Occasionally, there are the movies that truly transcend time to take the audience to places where they have never been. You could find yourself in a grittily authentic medieval court or an opulent English manor house or, in the case of `Open Range', on the expansive American West before the true impact of man was made evident.
The times were changing in the West in the middle of the 1880s. What once was as wide and open as one could imagine, now landowners, with the application of barbed wire, controlled fiefdoms of territory that they could run however they saw fit, and in the case of the movie, this antagonistic character would be Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon).
What Baxter has done in his sphere of influence, Harmonville, is close it off to free-grazers, or cow herds that roamed the West without a base of operations. This heavy-handed treatment conflicts with the values of Boss (Robert Duvall) and his right-hand man, Charley (Kevin Costner), the protagonist free-grazers.
Our two heroes are not typically violent people, but when Baxter's men attack their herd and kill one of their men (Abraham Benrubi) and severely wound another (Diego Luna), the two head into town for some old-fashioned Western justice. But while in town, a complication arises, as Charley falls for the town doctor's sister, Sue (Annette Bening). Now that he has something to stay alive for, he is about to be embroiled in a gun battle for what he sees as right versus the wrong of Baxter.
While Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall might be billed as the stars of the piece, the real `star' would have to be the visuals. With an unusual (at least in this century) minimal reliance on computer graphics, the story could have been done back in the heyday of Westerns, the 1950s. But in lieu of computer work, the scenery takes over and manages to just be jaw-droppingly beautiful. If you are not amazed by what you see, well then you don't know true beauty.
Not everything is as beautiful as the scenery though, as there were two things that were rather bothersome, in my opinion. Firstly, in every `true' Western, at least one protagonist needs to fall in love with a nice lady from town, so there was precedent for the Charley-Sue romance. But something about it just was jarringly discomforting-it wasn't so much the `square peg in a circular hole' but more like `an oval peg in the circular hole'-it wasn't quite clicking.
The other thing that wasn't as I would have liked it was the pacing. At times, the movie seemed to go by way too slowly as the dialogue wen t in a circuitous manner around the main points (something I've been occasionally guilty of-five dollars of writing for fifty cents of content). But everything reeked of authenticity, so I'm inclined to give this the benefit of a doubt.
`Open Range' is not your typical movie. Instead of all of the modern gilded trappings, it has an old-school reliance upon detail and natural visuals that make it a quaint and rather enjoyable film. 8 out of 10.
I am Thoroughly Angry and Insulted
I will be the first to admit that a good movie doe not need to be intellectually stimulating (see last week's review), but then again, one should not expect to go to a show (in this week's case, `The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen') and then emerge 100-some minutes later significantly more on the stupid side than he/she was before the movie started?
In the months before the dawn of the 20th Century, the world is facing a massive war, brought upon by terrorist attacks by a masked villain/arms dealer named the Fantom (not a typo). To combat this, a functionary in the British Empire called M (Richard Roxburgh) has assembled a team of individuals culled from Victorian Literature to head off the Fantom's plans.
The roster reads: Allan Quatermain (Sean Connery), expert hunter/adventurer; invisible thief Rodney Skinner (Tony Curran); inventor Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah); vampire Mina Harker (Peta Wilson); unstable Dr. Jekyll/Mr.Hyde (Jason Flemyng); immortal Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend); American Secret Service Agent Tom Sawyer (Shane West).
In a fantastical series of explosions, chases and drawn-out scenes of tedium, the so-called `League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' travels from Paris to Venice, to an industrial complex in Mongolia, in hope of adverting war.
Coming into the movie, I was familiar with all of the characters (except for Quatermain and Skinner--but he is explained PDQ) through their original medium (not the graphic novel from which this was adapted), and, to be succinct, I was appalled by the butchery of these great literary figures that was committed within the movie. The biggest atrocities come in the characters of Dorian Gray (who, in Wilde's work, was NOT immortal, just morally corrupt and youthful) and Mr. Hyde (more of a psychological transformation, according to Stevenson, and to be sure, Hyde did NOT miraculously grow to the size of a small house).
Perhaps I could be more forgiving if logic had not been tossed out the window. In the first half of the movie, one can see: an automobile race through the streets of Venice (and there really are NO major streets in that fair city), a 5-story submarine negotiate the Venetian canals (which are certainly not deep enough for the Nautilus), the same submarine, which, on the outside appear to be blade-thin, but, according to the film, is large enough to approximate a cruise liner on the inside (I bet the crews of the Ohio-class submarines would appreciate this type of reality distortion). I could go on and on, but then I'd get too worked up and succumb to a stroke or something and leave this column unfinished.
Perhaps as a concession, I can say that the acting is decent, but looking back, I can safely assume that this was one of Sean Connery's last appearances as the lead in an action film-the dude is getting old and it shows.
I can put up with most movies, but when one that is mediocre to begin with assumes the temerity to insult my intelligence, THAT is unforgivable. Director Stephen Norrington should be severely chastised for this effort (or lack thereof). This movie, for being insulting and seat-twistingly bad, gets a big fat ZERO. (And no, I am not bitter).
Hollywood Homicide (2003)
I'd Like to Report a "Homicide"
If you think back to last week, you should remember that in basically this exact same space (unless I'm on Page 3 today), I rambled on and on about how `The Italian Job' was more about the action and chases than the dialogue. Prepare for a flip as I break down `Hollywood Homicide' (see what I love about this job-the opportunity to flop two different ways in two weeks).
In the ritz and glamour of Hollywood, often one job-even a decent job like police work-is not enough to get by. Thus, Police Detectives Joe Gavilan (Harrison Ford) and K.C. Calden (Josh Hartnett) have found themselves moonlighting as a real estate broker and a yoga instructor, respectively. Neither lets their side jobs be interfered with too much with the major case plopped before them-the murder of four breakout rappers.
The main suspect thrust at the dynamic duo is one Antawn Sartain (Isaiah Washington), the head of the deceased rap group's record company, who cuts a sinister profile along with his head henchman, Wasley (Dwight Yoakam). Now Calden and Gavilan have found themselves waist-deep in a mess of a murder case, an internal affairs investigation, major business deals, acting auditions, etc.-leaving the audience to wonder if either one of these officers ever invested in a PDA.
Unlike last week's adventure in the cinema, `Hollywood Homicide' features an extremely witty and fun give-and-go dialogue between its two stars, Ford and Hartnett. Once the movie ended, I felt that for once in a summer action/comedy, I could depart the theater feeling like I knew the main characters.
But despite coughing up a snappy repartee, the writers failed to do one thing-develop a coherent plot. Half of the time I was in the dark as I pondered where this new bit of information would take me, leaving me with the distinct impression that one too many red herrings can cause one heckuva lousy smell.
Plus, the writer and director Ron Shelton chose to impart a wonderfully implausible device, known in Greek as dues ex machine, which translated here, means the mother of all implausibilities to help bring the beginning of the end to us.
Next on the agenda is my beef with the chase scenes. When I was younger, I reveled in watching reruns of `Dragnet', set basically right in the same area as `Hollywood Homicide'. At no time do I remember Friday and Gannon embarking upon a massive car chase replete with gunfire and massive civilian damage-rather they served (oh my gosh!) warrants on the wrongdoers. I guess in 35 years, the modus operandi has changed in the City of Angels, as warrants are basically unheard of and the only way to catch the bad guys is in a car chase. But I digress.
About the only homicide that I could remember after all of the twists and non-twists in `Hollywood Homicide' was the murder of a coherent plot. Still, the movie did feature some of the snappiest and better examples of dialogue that I have seen in a while, so I guess that, like last week, a 5 out of 10 serves as my verdict.
Finding Nemo (2003)
"Finding" A Flight odf Fancy
Remember back when you were little.you know, back when tall to you was about as high as a mailbox? In those days, Disney animated films (e.g. `Lion King' and `Beauty and the Beast') were some of the coolest things out there and were movies to watch over and over (much to your parents' chagrin). Now, animated movies aren't exactly the `coolest' things to see, but an exception can be made for the uber-hip Pixar movies, the most recent of which being `Finding Nemo'.
After losing all but one of his brood, Marlin (Albert Brooks) an over-protective clown fish that strangely lacks a sense of humor, has resolved to protect his one (slightly disabled) `child' remaining, Nemo (Alexander Gould). But disaster strikes as Nemo is taken by a Sydney dentist and plopped into a fish tank where he is comforted by a host of other captive fish (William Dafoe, Vicki Lewis, Allison Janney, et al). But back in the big ocean Down Under, Marlin has resolved to search out his one remaining progeny.
Along the way on his quest, Marlin acquires a tag-along `friend', Dory (Ellen DeGeneres)-a fish with, well, the memory capacity of a fish. The two must surmount hurdles like a group of sharks (Eric Bana, Barry Humphries and Bruce Spence) that have (mostly) sworn off eating other fish, a nasty swarm of jellyfish, a bird-brained flock of seagulls, and others.
This is the bridge! Well, in a way. Back when I was younger, one of my favorite films was `The Incredible Mr. Limpet', which, for the uninitiated, combined live-action with under-the-sea fish animation. What Pixar has done here was bring back that film to my mind and start me thinking, because they have created a wondrous undersea environment (with `normal-looking' fish instead of 1960s animated fish).
My favorite feature in this movie chock-full of sweet treats must be the sharks. I have always been partial to the shark family, but what has been done in creating three humorous sharks (what a movie concept), just sent paroxysms of laughter through me. Another thing that (mostly) works is Ellen DeGeneres' fish (character?) that provides a fairly constant source of laughter with her antics (although a couple gags do wear on the viewer with time). On the whole though, there is not a single bit of shoddy voice-acting or animation in it.
Compared to `Monsters Inc.', `Finding Nemo' is something of a revival for Pixar. I like how they have stepped up their efforts to make an altogether pleasing film without any big flaws. The thing that I did not like with `Monsters' was the inclusion of a single key (but EXTREMELY annoying) character. Director Andrew Stanton has done an excellent job at making the film work and be (basically) non-annoying to most of the general public (and this critic).
I suppose life has come full circle-now that I am (relatively) old as a high school graduate, animation is cool again, thanks to high-powered computers, at any rate. `Finding Nemo' is one heckuva movie and a good one to take anyone you know to, trust me on this-nine out of ten.
The In-Laws (2003)
"In-Laws" In Trouble
Sometimes there are those days when you are apathetic towards working and just want to hang around the house and do nothing. Now you might say that a movie reviewer SHOULD be immune to this, but that was where I found myself on Memorial Day weekend-nothing that I wanted to badly see was out, but I decided to end my end my torpor and get up and see `The In-Laws'.
The film opens up in Prague, where Steve Tobias (Michael Douglas) is busy brokering a deal for a Russian nuclear submarine, which is broken up by what appears to be the Czech Police, which requires some tricky driving to escape. The scene then shifts to Chicago, where our other protagonist, Jerry Peyser (Albert Brooks), an obsessive and phobic podiatrist is busy hammering out details for his daughter's (Lindsay Sloane) upcoming marriage to Tobias' son (Ryan Reynolds).
In what could be seen as an outrageously incredible series of events, Peyser finds himself an unwitting and unwilling accomplice of Tobias, who as a deep-cover CIA agent, has been tasked to nab both the buyer and seller of the submarine. The two adventure to France to meet the buyer, a thoroughly odd arms dealer, Jean-Pierre Thibodoux (David Suchet), who has, uh, more things on his mind than submarines.
This is a classic case of a Tale of Two Movies-a good one and one not-so-good. I think today, I will discuss the smaller part-the good part. For one thing, the writing of the film was witty and engaging, with multiple barbs thrown out that are pretty dang funny. With this writing, Brooks and Douglas are allowed to play off of each other to, in a sense, become `The Odd Couple' of the new millennium. They are an excellent coupling and a magnificent piece of casting by director Andrew Fleming.
And for the not-so-good? Two things really got my goat here, the first of which being the immensely cheesy special effects. The first shot of the film is of the submarine in question, the problem is that I have seen much better rendering in video games, so what is seen is just well, stupid. Also, for most of the action shots the actors so obviously stand out from the picture behind them, that it makes one wonder if he has been transported back to the 1960s where such distinction was commonplace. Shoddy, just plain shoddy.
Also, `The In-Laws' is, for lack of a better expression, badly out of touch with reality. I cannot say too much, for fear of ruining the ending, but I can safely say that certain key features of geography in the Great Lakes waterways are blatantly ignored and an underwater weapons system ignores physics in an unforgivable manner (among other things).
I suppose that this was a bit of an unusual switch to watch-good writing, but lousy special effects, but `The In-Laws' managed to pull it off. Still, with a decent portion of the movie being good, and only the special effects being truly pathetic, I can give this movie a 5 out of 10, just because I say I can.
The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
Back into the Matrix
A former cross-country teammate of mine once said `There are two types of people in this world-those who like The Matrix' and those who don't.' I would have to say that I fall into the former category, but that only raised my expectations for `The Matrix: Reloaded', because I remembered that Keanu Reeves was the star and well, I'll get to that little bit later.
At the conclusion of the first installment, we have learned that Neo (Keanu Reeves) is The One meant to end the struggle between the humans and the Matrix controllers, the machines. Now, we can see that his abilities have grown to basically encompass your typical superhero superpowers. But Zion, the last refuge of humanity, is in peril, as a quarter million machines are digging to eradicate it.
It is now up to Neo, his lover Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and his friend Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) to find an end to the war and save Zion. Along the Kung-fu, explosion-laden way, they employ the talents of many allies-Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), the Keymaker (Russell Duk Kim) and the Oracle (Gloria Foster)-to overcome the obstacles thrown in their paths by such villains as the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson), The Twins (Adrian and Neil Raymont), and the multiple Agent Smiths (Hugo Weaving) in their search for the final victory.
After the first `Matrix' debuted, the entire world of Hollywood Special Effects was thrown asunder as what was shown was ground-breaking and jaw-dropping. The bar has been raised again. Without delving into too many details, I can safely tell you that the fight scenes within are of the ilk that have never been seen before and had me saying to myself `Did I just see that?'
That said, the philosophical and theological leanings of the film had me a bit flummoxed. I get the whole philosophy/theology thing and I can understand the importance and significance that it carries, but WHY must certain points be expounded upon over and over? It would seem that the Wachowski brothers who wrote it have not been acquainted with Dire Straits, who succinctly summed up my point in `Industrial Disease'-`Philosophy is useless, Theology is worse.' Amen to that.
I alluded to my distaste for Mr. Reeves earlier in this piece, and I would like to think that it was somewhat correct. In some ways in `The Matrix: Reloaded', he is the perfect character for his role, but then he takes to speaking for more than a line or two and things go downhill. The same goes for Laurence Fishburne, who becomes tedious during his speech-making. It might be a shock coming from me, but concision is important.
On the other hand, I was nothing if not delighted with the performances given by Lambert Wilson and Hugo Weaving as a pair of characters maybe not intrinsically evil, but close enough. They were, by no small means, the acting performances to of the film.
When `The Matrix Reloaded' is pared down to its essentials, it works extremely efficiently as an action vehicle, but at times, the dogmatization within wears thin and becomes more of a burden and a far-too-often repeated point, so on the whole, Matrix v. 2.0 gets a 7.5 out of 10.
Not Your Typical Slasher
As I turned the key in my car's ignition, the familiar bass of Queen came tumbling out of my speakers. `Are you ready, Are you ready for this/Are you hanging on the edge of your seat?' How is that for coincidence, I mean, what better song to be playing after watching a bloody flick like `Identity'?
On a rainy night in a place in Nevada that could be quite well described as the Middle of Nowhere, ten perfect strangers all end up in a desert motel. There is the pleasant York family with the father (John McGinley) and son Timothy (Bret Loehr) trying to hold together after a messy accident puts the mother (Leila Kenzle) on death's door. The cause of the accident also shows up at the motel in the form of a pampered actress (Rebecca De Mornay) and her faithful chauffer Ed (John Cusack) being the ones who actually hit Mrs. York.
Then there is the prostitute, Paris (Amanda Peet), who, for some odd reason is detested by the creepy hotel clerk, Larry (John Hawkes). The next set of people is made up of the newlyweds (Clea DuVall and William Lee Scott). The final set of people is the cop (Ray Liotta) with his prisoner escortee (Jake Busey), which makes for a nice combination on a stormy night. Oh, and I must add that in a seemingly unrelated tangent, there is a hearing going on in some California town to decide on a soon-to-be-executed prisoner's aptness to be killed.
As one may expect, people start dying, often in gruesome fashions, which leads in to this nifty bit from the song of the column--`Another one bites the dust/ Another one bites the dust.' Then comes a twist that may or may not blow your mind, but I'll leave that little bit of the mind-twist for y'all to figure out.
This is one creepy film. I don't do horror/suspense well, so I really have nothing to base this off of, but it had me hooked. The first two acts play out nearly perfectly, with the suspense building and building as another character bites the dust. To this, I credit director James Mangold for keeping it moving and also keeping the audience guessing as to which member is the killer.
The third act of the film, though, threw me for a loop. In some ways, it is a very good twist, but in others, the entire pacing of the movie is interrupted and throws the audience off of its guard for a moment or two, which is not exactly a good thing to do.
A couple of stand-out performances-John Cusack is excellent as the closest thing to a `hero' the film provides as he basically walks the audience through the clues. I also give kudos to John Hawkes for his motel clerk who offers the precise amount of patheticness and menace to be intriguing. One other good job goes to Amanda Peet who is solidly spectacular as a flawed semi-heroine.
But as with most large casts, there are a couple performances that left a bit to be desired-for one, Leila Kenzle (this is not that big of a spoiler, so don't protest!) as her character is supposedly lying dead, well, when a dead person is noticeably breathing, that is not that good of a thing. I also did not particularly care for Jake Busey's convict-character because what we did see was just not really enough and a bit more could have been done with him.
`And another one gone, and another one gone/ Another one bites the dust/ Hey, I'm gonna get you too/ Another one bites the dust.' As this review bites the dust, I can conclude that the tension in `Identity' never really bit the dust, as proof, my heart rate was up over normal by nearly 40 BPM right after the film ended, which speaks to the tenseness. I think that `Identity', especially when coupled with an amazing coincidence, is deserving of an 8 out of 10.
The Hours (2002)
It may sound hypocritical, but movie critics are more often than not, `full of sound and fury, signifying nothing' in that they build up films for their artsy qualities and too little for the sheer entertainment value that is what can really make a movie great. `The Hours,' in my not-so-humble opinion, is one of those films. I'll show you why.
The entire crux of the story is along the lines of `Mrs. Dalloway', a novel written by Virginia Woolf (portrayed here by Nicole Kidman) that focuses on a woman planning a party to disguise her own shortcomings. With that in mind, let us jump feet first into the plot.
The first plot line centers on Virginia Woolf who has been confined in a rest home by her semi-caring husband, Leonard (Stephen Dillane) due to her mental demons. While confined, she sets to work at what will prove to be her most everlasting work, `Mrs. Dalloway'.
The second plot line is set in 1950s suburbia in the United States, where Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) is a housewife who is finding life as a homemaker to be extremely overwhelming, as she simultaneously attempts to bake a birthday cake for her husband (John C. Reilly) and entertain Richard, her clingy son (Jack Rovello).
The third thread is set in modern day New York where editor Clarissa Bell (Meryl Streep) attempts to throw a party in celebration of her dying former lover (Ed Harris) attaining a top poetry award. She, however, feels as though all of her shortcomings have been overexposed by his constant harping and has reached the end of her rope.
To start with, the plot can be summed up in two words-depressingly innovative. Why depressing? Well, a film where two major characters commit suicide can certainly not be called uplifting. As for the innovation, this film echoes `Adaptation' in the fact that there are three separate, yet interconnected plot lines. `The Hours' also goes one better than `Adaptation' by segue-ing between scenes with a character copying the previous character's action.
As for the acting, it was extremely well done. The audience can see that these are full and complete people and not merely figures upon a screen. I especially liked Streep's performance, but truth be told, there was not a poor performance in a bunch.
But if `The Hours' has all this going for it, then why did I not really like it? I offer a couple reasons. Firstly, it employed a repetition of objects in every scene that was frightfully reminiscent of the books I read for AP Lit (movies are for pleasure and not to remind one of work). Also there was that previously mentioned bit about it being a dark film-I went in with a good mood and I left feeling a bit down. A third reason is that it is far from a quick film-it is deliberate in pacing and in turn, seems to take `Hours' to finish. Finally, this is not a male-directed movie and just did not meet my tastes all that much.
In a rare move, I have opted to reward each half of the film-the art side (a.k.a. shameless pandering to the Oscars) which is really what the film aimed at, and the entertainment side. For art, I award a solid 9 but when it comes to entertainment value, I shall give 5 out of 10.
It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing
There are two types of musicals in this world-the ones I like and the ones I do not. I do not like the formulaic `let's burst into song every five minutes' types like `Holiday Inn' and `Sound of Music'. However, I am drawn to up-tempo up-beat musicals like `Moulin Rouge' and (gasp) `The Rocky Horror Picture Show'. With this hit-or-miss record in mind, I was off to `Chicago.'
In the 1920s life was wild, liquor flowed freely (though illegally) and jazz was all the rage. In the smoke-filled bars, Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) was a star-along with her sister Veronica, who has just been killed by Velma, the leading jazz tramp. But that is not the only murder that will rock Chicago.
All that Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) wants is to be a jazz star-so she takes a lover who supposedly has `connections,' but when it turns out that he is a fraud, Roxie kills him, which could end up with her getting the death sentence.
Stuck in the murderer's row of Chicago's Cook County jail, Roxie is `befriended' by Mama Morton (Queen Latifah), the prison matron who is not above a little bit of graft, who recommends that Roxie enlist Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), the top defense attorney in Illinois, who will plaster her face over every paper in the city and turn her into a criminal celebrity, which inflates her ego and causes her to forget her erstwhile husband Amos (John Reilly).
To kick things off, I just love how director Rob Marshall weaves the songs in and out of the storyline. Actually, he makes two plotlines-one of the traditional movie sort with a straight-forward, engaging yet dry fashion and the other occupies the imaginations of the characters-a high-flying jazz musical, through which we are guided by the bandleader, played by Taye Diggs. The difference is what sets this film apart, but I must say this while dwelling on the story-the ending is weak. It's decent, but compared to the rest of the film, it needs some help.
What does not need help are the actors. Renee Zellweger is pretty dang good-she sings well and she manages to pull off every scene as an ego-bloated yet naïve girl with aspirations of stardom. But I think that Catherine Zeta-Jones is better. I am not music critic (I'll leave that to Luke), but Zeta-Jones is magnificent-especially her rendition of `Cellblock Tango'. Not to be forgotten is Queen Latifah, who is a showstopper with her power-piece `When You're Good to Mama.'
On the guys' side, they don't do half-bad. John Reilly does well as a sad-sack husband, who is beaten down and disrespected, which is especially evident in his song `Mr. Cellophane,' which sings in a manner atypical to how I expected his character to. But my oh my, was I surprised by Richard Gere. He is purely awesome as a corrupt lawyer skilled in manipulation. One of his numbers standout in my mind-`Razzle Dazzle'-because he couples great singing with Astaire-like tap dancing.
`Chicago' was certainly not a miss like I had previously feared. I was spellbound by it the entire way (except for the closing bit that seemed non sequitor), and I can certainly see why it grabbed all those Oscar nominations. I give it a ten out of ten for sheer panache and because it is different than every other movie out there.