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In a summer brimming with high flying angels and gravity defying
archaeologists comes a movie designed to appeal to that most neglected
segment of the movie-going population, adults. Nothing blows up and there
isn't a flaming helicopter or open running wound anywhere in sight. In an
attempt at counter programming Universal has scheduled Seabiscuit to go
mano-e-mano against drunken Caribbean pirates, scantily clad adventurers and
three dimensional spy kids, hoping to bring in the parents of the kids who
have been dropping their allowance money at the box-office all season.
Who knows, it just might work. The last time I checked people over the age of fourteen enjoyed movies too.
Seabiscuit is the inspiring story of a horse who became an American folk hero during the depression years. Everything about this movie screams prestige, from the Academy Award winning cast to the narration by PBS regular David McCullough to the sumptuous art design. Hell, screenwriter / director Gary Ross even used to write speeches for President Clinton! The result is a predictable, but likeable movie that demands nothing more from you than to feel better when you leave the theatre than you did when you came in.
Based on a book of the same name by Laura Hillenbrand, Seabiscuit reintroduces us to one of the great sports stories from the early part of the last century. There was a time when everyone knew the story, he was so famous in fact that on one occasion hundreds of businesses closed for half a day so their employees could tune in to hear Seabiscuit race against Triple Crown winner War Admiral on the radio. These days, though, because Seabiscuit didn't endorse Nike or Pepsi, his story has been largely forgotten.
The film begins in the heady days before the stock market crash of 1929. Businessman Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) made his fortune selling cars, and promoting his vision of `the future.' After the tragic death of his son, the future doesn't seem so bright anymore. Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) is an outsider, shunned by most horse professionals because he believes in healing, not killing wounded animals. At a head taller than any other jockey on the horse racing circuit, Red Pollard (Tobey McGuire) is considered a fringe player, but he loves horses and prefers this life to the alternatives starving on the streets or getting the tar knocked out of him in underground boxing matches.
Seasbiscuit, an undersized horse of good breeding but little in the way of talent is the center around which each of these men revolve. Through hard work and care Seabiscuit is transformed from a candidate for the glue factory into a champion, and basking in the reflected glory are Howard, Smith and Pollard.
Seabiscuit picks up speed in the middle stretch, after a slow first hour. Much of the opening of the film feels like a history lesson, disrupting the flow of the story. Not that you could easily derail this story. Ross has played fast and loose with the facts for example, Pollard was actually a mean drunk, not the nice guy presented here cobbling together a story that sometimes feels like Chicken Soup for the Equine Soul.
Inspirational messages tumble from everyone's lips, as though pearls of wisdom flow from their mouths as easily as turning on a facet and watching the water coming pouring out. The script overuses several of these nuggets ie: `Sometimes when the little guy doesn't know he's the little guy he can do big things ' which only reinforces their corny sentiments.
If the dialogue seems stilted, the racing sequences certainly do not. Ross puts the viewer directly in the action in a series of beautifully realised shots that seem to be taken from the horse's point of view. In those days racing was a brutal sport where jockeys would punch and shove one another in mid-race. Seabiscuit does an admiral job of recreating the tension and aggression involved in the races with long shots that give the viewer the opportunity to follow the action without confusion.
In the end Seabiscuit is clichéd and predictable, but good work by Bridges, McGuire and Cooper coupled with the movie's indomitable spirit make it a pleasure that is hard to deny.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Robert Rodriguez is putting his extremely profitable kid's franchise to bed
with a 3-D story that is, unfortunately not as multi-dimensional as the name
would imply. Three years ago the original Spy Kids seemed like a breath of
fresh air, it was a colourful, exuberant affair that burst with
inventiveness and humour. The inevitable sequel, 2001's The Island of Lost
Dreams, proved that there is some merit in the theory of diminishing
returns, while Game Over confirms that additional incremental input will
produce a declining incremental amount of output.
In other words, most sequels suck.
In this instalment older sister Carmen (Alex Vega) is being held hostage in an elaborate virtual reality videogame called Game Over, run by the evil Toymaker (Sylvester Stallone). Brother Juni, (Daryl Sabara) who has retired from the spy business to concentrate on his career as a private eye must rescue his sister and shut down the game. Once inside the cyberspace monolith he loses his heart to a brave young girl (played by Emily Osment, sister of the Oscar nominated Haley Joel), races giant motorbikes and gives the viewer a headache watching all the swirling action through flimsy red and green 3-D glasses.
Rodriguez may have based the character of the Toymaker on himself. Like the evil genius in the movie, Rodriguez appears to be lost in his own creation, too fascinated by the 3-D technology to concentrate on giving the movie any kind of plot. What little story there is simply kick-starts the action, placing Juni in the game, and thus is an excuse to rev up the special effects. Turned loose in cyberspace the film careens through forty mind-numbing minutes of Super Mario Brothers quality graphics that flip and fly through the air, and even though things appear to literally jump off the screen, Spy Kids 3-D is flat.
Spy Kids 3-D has everything the first two instalments didn't have from cardboard characters, to headache inducing special effects all the way down to bland dialogue.
The film is packed with several `don't blink or you'll miss em' celebrity cameos. Rodriguez pal George Clooney provides one of the film's few legitimate laughs (Spoiler Warning!) with his subtle Sylvester Stallone impression, while Cheech Marin, Steve Buscemi, Elijah Wood, Bill Paxton and Salma Hayek check in, but aren't given much to do. Only Ricardo Montalban as the wheelchair bound grandfather seems to relish his role. Once inside the game he hams it up, trading in his chair for an animated metal superhero costume. He's entertaining to watch because he seems to be having so much fun with the silly material. He even sneaks in a joke about `fine Corinthian leather.' It's a line that the kids won't get, but anyone over the age of thirty will recognize from his years as the spokesperson for Chrysler.
Montalban brings some joyfulness to the movie, and so does Stallone, it's just a different kind of joy. It's the kind of mean-spirited delight that comes from watching a formerly popular actor completely embarrass himself onscreen. Displaying an emotional depth that ranges from Rocky to Rambo, Stallone plays the evil Toymaker and three of his alter-egos, a nerdy scientist, a burn-out hippie and a war mongering general. The last time I heard such `hilarious' accents I was at my nine-year-old nephew's school play.
Once Rodriguez moves the action out of the videogame the film takes on a warmer, more familiar tone, but it is too little too late. One hopes that the movie's name is prophetic, and it really is game over for the Spy Kids franchise.
Anyone who saw Lara Croft: Tomb Raider will agree that it didn't make a
great deal of sense. That apparently didn't matter to the people who flocked
to the multi-plex to see Angelina Jolie run in slow motion and hang upside
down while fighting bad guys. Enough people agreed that trifles like plot
and believability were secondary to seeing Jolie battling a frantic robot
that a sequel was commissioned.
I'm glad to report that Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life not only has one of the longest titles of the summer, but also has a story that almost makes sense! Not that we demand much from these movies. The story is simply a peg to hang Ms Jolie's bikini on while temples crash, motorcycles rev and people defy gravity, flying through the air as Lara Croft punches a shark. It's a popcorn movie, not Dostoyevsky, although at times this movie feels as long as a Russian novel. Here's the story as I remember it Somewhere between diving in a skintight silver wetsuit and riding side-saddle on her English country estate archeologist Croft learns that a shining golden globe which she had in her possession, then lost is actually a map to the mysterious Cradle of Life where the famous Pandora's Box is said to be hidden. While wearing a natty kimono Croft learns that former Nobel Prize winner and `modern day Dr. Mengele' Jonathan Reiss has the orb and is close to uncovering its secret. She must don a skin-tight motorcycle jacket and find him, before he discovers the deadly secret of Pandora's Box and sells its poison to the highest bidder.
For support Lara entices an old flame named Gerrard (Terry Butler), currently doing time in a Siberian ultra-high security prison for crimes against the state. Looking fetching in a white fur trimmed winter coat she offers him freedom and a great deal of money to help her. Thus begins their whirlwind world tour of destruction as the dynamic duo travel to Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Africa in their attempt to recover the globe and unlock its secrets. Dutch director Jan de Bont (Speed, Twister) makes good use of the scenery both Ms Jolie and the international locales showcasing the beauty and the danger of each. A nicely staged gun battle involves inventive use of a neon sign and a pole vault to a helicopter; another scene shows the couple `flying' over the skyline of Shanghai. In both cases de Bont actually shows us the action. If Charlie's Angels director McG had shot those scenes we would have seen a glimpse of the helicopter blade, a quick cut of someone flying through the air and heard the whoosh of a bullet as it cut through the air. My major complaint with recent action sequences is that we don't actually get to see anything. It's all quick cuts and loud techno music. Jan de Bont avoids that trap, allowing the scenes to play out, and while sometimes they drag on a bit too long, at least we know what we are looking at.
Angelina Jolie plays Lara Croft like a Barbi doll come to life, batteries, but no heart included. She is powerful, sexy, agile, adventurous and no-nonsense (as Gerrard learns the hard way), but like the videogame character she is based on, doesn't seem to have anything going on under the pretty façade. Unlike that other famous cinematic archaeologist, the quirky Indiana Jones, there is no vulnerability to Croft at all.
Jolie's beautiful face is a blank slate, expressionless for most of the film with only the occasional arching of an eyebrow to remind us that a real person lives beneath her perfect skin. Perhaps in Lara Croft Tomb Raider 3: The Saga Continues In More Exotic Lands she will transcend her computer generated origins, and we'll get a glimpse of the real person behind that raised eyebrow.
Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life is like its name, a bit too long, and kind of silly, but a vast improvement on its predecessor.
Director Danny DeVito uncovers the soft underbelly of children's television in this dark comedy starring Edward Norton and a manic Robin Williams. This is a mean spirited piece of work, so dark and profane you have to give Mrs. Doubtfire and the guy from Taxi credit for making it work. With a lesser cast and without a steady hand behind the camera this could have turned into an unredeemable mess. Instead DeVito and cast churn out a comedy that does something unusual, they remain likeable particularly Williams playing against his recent family-man image while delivering unpredictable laughs for those who like their humor with a mean streak. Maybe the `Posterboy for Bad Taste' Tom Green should study this movie before he writes his next screenplay.
A surreal movie based on a short story collection by Mississippi writer Larry Brown. Arliss Howard directs and stars as Leon Barlow, a drunken writer who struggles with the demands of his ex-wife (Debra Winger), his children and his best friend (Paul LeMat). He is a failure on almost every level certainly personally and professionally and Howard doesn't shy away from his protagonist's shortcomings. The resulting film is a meandering look at the creative process, and how one man messed up his life. It's a well crafted directorial debut from Howard who handles this quiet tale of an artist's redemption with a firm hand.
Spun is a wild ride, an ADD movie that seems to say, `If you don't like what's on screen right now, don't worry it'll change in the next ten seconds.' Director Jonas Akerlund, cut his teeth in the frenetic world of music video and it shows. Spun spins out of control from its opening minutes, shooting out images and plot points willy nilly. This makes Snatch look slow by comparison. If you can keep up with the pace, there is something here. Akerlund takes us deep inside the crystal meth culture, and it is an unnerving but hilarious journey. We meet a group of characters tied together by their association with one man, the crystal meth cook. We get a good sense of the lives of these characters, and even like some of them, no matter how addled they are by their addictions. What we see in Spun isn't story driven as much as it simply a slice of life a dirty, sped up slice of life. Good performances compliment the material, particularly from Mickey Rourke as the Cook, Jason Schwartzman as the likeable speed freak and John Leguizamo who sheds almost all his inhibitions in this role.
Al Pacino is a world-weary New York show biz publicist in People I Know, so world-weary in fact that it looks like he hasn't slept since he finished shooting on Insomnia in 2002. The bags under his eyes aren't bags anymore, they're suitcases. As Eli Wurman he is on the way out, a has-been from another area who medicates himself with a constant cocktail of cigarettes, booze and pills. A personal scandal threatens an event he is planning, and we follow him through the final preparations for his last big hurrah. Director Daniel Algrant pulls great performances out of Pacino, Kim Basinger and Tea Leoni and Robert Klein, who all seem to relish the chance to speak well written, smart dialogue. Set in the present People I Know feels very contemporary, but manages to have a timeless quality about it. The seamy underbelly of New York doesn't really change from year to year, only the faces do.
Mile Zero is a film about male vulnerability. Michael Riley plays Derek, a psychologically brittle man who lets jealousy devour him, eventually pushing him to break the law. It's a family drama about a family gone wrong. Riley excels in his role, as does Connor Widdows, the young boy who plays Derek's son Wil. I could have used a little less of the home movie flashback scenes, but they did reinforce the sense of loss Derek was experiencing after his wife kicked him out of the house. It's heart wrenching stuff, and while you can't condone Derek's actions, Riley makes him human enough that the viewer can at least understand his behaviour.
Insomnia is director Christopher Nolan's first film since last year's Memento, and it is a stunner. In this remake of a Norwegian film made in 1998 by Erik Skjoldbjaerg, Nolan has cast three Oscar winners - Al Pacino and Hillary Swank play police officers chasing down a dangerous psychopath played by Robin Williams. Nolan set the film in Alaska, and makes good use of the location, particularly in the opening credit sequence as the camera follows a two-engine prop plane across the unforgiving jagged ice ridges. A foot chase on moving logs provides excitement, but the best thrills here are psychological. This is a film for adults. Insomnia is a serious thriller that relies not only on action, but on issues of guilt and morality to propel the story. Al Pacino hands in his best performance in years, although his accent seems to change from one scene to another. Robin Williams impresses, playing the homicidal Walter Finch with a chilling intensity that should forever put an end to the Mrs. Doubtfire typecasting pit he fell into in the 90s. Swank as the smart small-town cop delivers a multi-layered performance that is completely believable.
In the interest of full disclosure I have to admit that I am not a fan of musicals. In fact, the term `all singing, all dancing' is usually enough to send me running and screaming. Despite winning ten Academy Awards on its release in 1961, MGM's West Side Story has never been a favorite of mine, and I haven't seen it for years. So it was with mild disinterest that I viewed the new slickly packaged 40th anniversary DVD reissue of this retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story. As it turns out I was in for a pleasant surprise. While I still find the larger-than-life Puerto Rican accents grating and have to suppress giggles at the vision of tough gang members dancing in tandem, this new version boasts a wonderfully remixed and re-mastered audio track, a digitally polished Panavision picture and interesting extras, adding up to a beautifully done reissue. The two disc set offers a wide screen presentation of the film, with English, French and Spanish subtitles and spoken language options; a new, comprehensive 56-minute documentary that includes every major West Side Story figure, and a host of shorter features, including alternate trailers, original film intermission music and three photo galleries. As an added bonus MGM has included a thick print scrapbook featuring the entire script, an original lobby brochure and behind the scenes photos. Nice package all in all, and while West Side Story will never make my Top Ten Favorite Movies Of All Time list, this reissue has made me reconsider the work, especially the lyrical beauty of Ernest Lehman's script and the nice supporting performances of George Chakiris and Rita Moreno. Recommended.
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