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King Kong (2005)
A 10-star 2-hour movie screaming to get out of a 7-star 3-hour movie
Let me be the first to admit that there's nothing wrong with a long movie, nothing at all. "Titanic" was a long movie that was as exactly as long as it needed to be. "Gone with the Wind" was a really long movie that was exactly as long as it needed to be. "Dances with Wolves" was a long movie that I wish had been even longer when I saw it in the theater. But "King Kong"? Phhewww...this sucker clocks in at least 30-60 minutes longer than it needs to be. While it played, I kept inadvertently thinking to myself, "Boy, we really should be out to sea by now...they haven't reached the island yet?...man, are they EVER gonna find Ann?...jeez, when are we gonna go back to Manhattan already?..." and so on. Hand to God--I actually yawned twice during the last third of this movie. I even closed my eyes for a second before I realized, 'hey...you can't just rewind this when you wake up!'
Sure, many scenes in "King Kong" were thrilling (e.g., LOVED the T-Rex sequence) and, yes, I even teared up a little a couple of times. And I must say, Kong himself was beautifully realized--he looked and acted like a REAL gorilla (albeit a tiny bit anthropomorphized)! But I gotta tell you...I was more relieved than exhilarated when this movie ended. (If I saw one more flyover of the native village, I was gonna scream!) Peter...baby...why spend so much time developing all these extraneous secondary characters if you don't really have much closure with them by the end. For example, the ship's captain and Jimmy...once we leave Skull Island...pfffftttt...we never them again. Why all the backstory scenes about them? As with the original version, Jackson should have concentrated simply on the four main characters throughout: Kong, Ann, Driscoll and Denham. Period.
The problem is Jackson tried to make an epic out of a thriller, when these two approaches are generally exclusive to each other. The original "Kong" MOVED because it was simply a thriller and content to be so, but Jackson's remake starts and stops, and starts and stops, and starts and stops, merely frustrating the thrillseeker in us that wants to keep going every time Jackson establishes some momentum. But instead Jackson pauses to "delve" or "explore" or "elaborate" a la David Lean or something like that. One can excuse Jackson for shooting so much material for the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy--consider the rich source material . But how anyone could have taken the 100-minute original and nearly doubled it for a remake has far too much memory on his Mac. He should have saved all the extra footage (and I'm betting there's a LOT more we didn't see in the theatrical cut) for the DVD release as he did for LOTR. Mr. Jackson's first priority as a filmmaker (well, all filmmakers) is to present the most appropriate cut for THEATRICAL audiences during the film's initial exhibition in theaters. In this case, more WAS less. Much shorter movies in the past have had intermissions!
Honestly, though I certainly enjoyed "King Kong", I really have no desire to see this movie again--I just couldn't bring myself to sit through all the filler just to get to the good parts. How I wish Jackson and/or Universal would consider releasing a 2-hour DVD version. Hey, it's happened before, so what's the harm? Inside of a year there'll be 17 versions out on DVD anyway...what's one more? But having to sit through a 3-4 hour DVD version someday? I'll take a pass.
Do I recommend seeing "King Kong"? Of course. You'll probably enjoy it immensely, despite it's overlength. But if you do go, by all means lay off the Jumbo Coke until at least 90 minutes in! You'll thank me later.
UFO's Are Real (1979)
Much Better Than It Deserved To Be
Though the production budget looks extremely limited, and the narration is a bit ripe, this still manages to be an interesting and informative (and even a bit creepy) documentary on the UFO phenomenon up to the late seventies. In other words, it succeeds despite itself. It does suffer from a bit too much pomposity now and then (note the frequent questioning by the narrator: "Could this be proof of...", "Is this evidence of...", and so on). But it does have in its favor a significant amount of UFO still and movie footage, not to mention in-depth interviews with Betty Hill, Travis Walton and several people involved with the Roswell incident. Highly recommended as a primer for those just starting out in their search to find "what's out there".
NOTE: The link to Amazon is misleading. While an interesting and more up-to-date report on the UFO phenomenon (and also featuring Dr. Stanton Friedman), the "Flying Saucers Are Real" DVD/VHS contains only a few minutes of footage from "UFOs Are Real". The "UFOs Are Real" VHS is likely long out-of-print since it was first released in the 80s, but you're still better off trying to find an old copy if you can.
The Bourne Supremacy (2004)
Solid sequel, but did it HAVE to be shot in Shakyscope?
I can unquestionably say that by its end I had thoroughly enjoyed this sequel to (the better) "The Bourne Identity". But there were two factors that almost RUINED the movie for me (and they have been justifiably discussed below): the CONSTANTLY moving camera and the too-fast editing during action scenes. What was the director/editor thinking? "Hey, if it works for Bruckheimer, it'll work for us!"? Did they ever stop to realize these are the two reasons why most of Bruckheimer's movies are AWFUL?! Even during scenes in "Supremacy" where two characters were absolutely motionless and merely having a conversation, the camera still meandered around the room, never stopping to register on a subtle expression here and there or on people's eyes. How was this ill-conceived "technique" ever born (no pun intended)? What moron ever thought for a moment that constantly moving the camera was a good idea? Were they afraid that audiences today had grown so jaded with time-tested cinematic grammar that they would flee movie theaters in droves? Hand-held camera work is fine for documentaries, out of necessity. But when it is so over-utilized in a theatrical film, it just translates to one thing and one thing only: the director has NO FAITH in the material. Did Greengrass never look at "Bourne Identity" to see how beautifully constructed it was?
The action scenes in "Supremacy" were a joke. When will filmmakers understand that when said scenes are so chaotically edited together (see "The Transporter" as an example), the viewer's brain literally "disconnects" from the action; because there is too much information in too short a time to analyze adequately, it is impossible for the average film-goer to cognate and construct a linear visual narrative in their head. Consequently, the mind simply...gives up. The fight scene in the small apartment is a perfect example: all I could see were just two black blurs being tossed around for three minutes. Was I ever in the moment? No. Was I engaged? No. Was I empathetic to the hero? Uh...which one is the hero, I can't tell? I found myself actually looking away from the screen, I was so disinterested (more involuntarily than voluntarily).
Whoever directs the next sequel, and I certainly hope it is NOT Greengrass, please do the following: learn as much as you can from Liman's success and Greengrass' blunders before you proceed. Millions of loyal Jason Bourne fans will thank you for it.
Strictly for kids--the slower ones!
You're reading this review for two reasons only: 1) you've never seen this special, and 2) you want to see this special. Regarding the latter...no, you don't; regarding the former...count yourself among the lucky masses. As Yoda might say, 'Painful to watch this was'. I wanted to fast-forward several times, but I forced myself not to--I missed this special when it originally aired during my 17th year and I've pined away all these years hoping to see it. And as it turns out, the past quarter century has been a blessing in disguise--that is, until I excitedly sat down tonight and watched a decent bootleg copy of this, er, buried treasure.
EVERYTHING bad you've read below is TRUE. An unbelievably horrendous experience--and it's 100 minutes long! The first quarter hour is agony: a seemingly endless establishing scene of Chewbacca's home life--his wife, son and father barking and mewing at each other without subtitles (not that what they have to say is particularly potent). Save for brief appearances by Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill (sporting a horribly-lit mole looking like a monstrous sebaceous cyst above his chin), most of this special is padded out by pompous Imperial personnel, a neither-here-nor-there appearance by Art Carney, a cabaret number belted out by Beatrice Arthur in the Mos Eisley bar, and a has-nothing-to-do-with-anything-Star-Wars (but admittedly amusing) turn by Harvey Korman playing three different roles.
Yes, the animated short with Boba Fett is worth seeing at least once (it actually does a better job of establishing Boba's persona than Episode 5), though some of the characters are a bit rubbery, particularly Han Solo. But the price one pays may be too high--five minutes with Chewie's family and you'll understand why he elects to spend most of his free time at work. Coupled with a storyline that never engages and visual effects that make "Star Hustler" look like "The Lord of the Rings", this 'special' is anything but. Give up on this one, sir or madam. Ignorance is bliss!
Far from Heaven (2002)
I HATED this movie!
This movie isn't an homage to Douglas Sirk--it's a rank PARODY, plain and simple. What was Todd Haynes thinking? He could have played it straight (no pun intended) and have been far more subtle, but his over-the-top approach was unbearable most of the time. People in my audience were laughing AT this movie, not with it--I was embarrassed for the actors! It's a miracle that Moore, Quaid, Haysbert and several supporting characters were able to break through this mess to deliver such outstanding performances. Haynes' execution revealed nothing but contempt for his subject matter, perhaps even Sirk himself. There was a good story to be told here, but Haynes buried it under garish and excessive references to a deservedly appreciated filmmaker most people have never heard of. And P.S., Todd, if you really wanted to stick it to Sirk you should have shot this movie in 'scope. But I guess 99% is better than nothing, right, Todd?
They should call this "ST:BORING"!
I've been watching every incarnation of "Star Trek" since the original series and--I'm sorry to say--this is the worst one yet. Which is not to say that it's "bad", by any means; it's certainly watchable, with a couple of pretty decent episodes thus far. But on the whole, "Enterprise" is rather dull and uninspired. What could have been, should have been, the most potentially exciting "Star Trek" series ever seems as if it has been made up more or less of unused second-string "Next Generation" and "Voyager" scripts. "Enterprise" is simply all dressed-up with no place to go; the cast is interesting, the sets are great, the special effects are top-notch...but there have been NO engaging story lines! For example, in the episode where the Captain and Trip are wandering through the desert for most of the hour, at one point I actually screamed at my TV, "Oh, for God's sake...DO something!" And what was the episode's payoff? They were eventually...rescued.
Where is the discovery? Where is the adventure? Where is the danger? I think more crewmembers die in any single episode of "TOS" than in all of "Enterprise's" first season. We're supposed to be in virgin territory at this point in the "Star Trek" time line. Where is the 'unknown' element? Where are all the alien species that like to toy with humans, that treat us like guinea pigs, that need an hour to learn about our virtues as well as our foibles? So far, all the Enterprise crew has met are a handful of races that, well, are not particularly fond of humans. This is drama? This is jeopardy? This is future-history in the making? This is entertainment?
It's time for the producers to start kickin' some a** on "Enterprise". Because if they don't do it soon, theirs is going to be kicked right off of UPN's schedule.
The Canned Film Festival (1986)
Great opportunity to see the worst of the worst
This was a brief but charming syndicated series in the summer of 1986 showcasing some truly baaaaaaaad motion pictures over the years; just imagine "Mystery Science Theater 3000", only without comments from Joel, Mike and the robots in the foreground. This provided a terrific opportunity to see some truly stupendous classics of rotten cinema, among them: "Bride of the Monster", "They Saved Hitler's Brain", "Attack of the Eye Creatures", "Robot Monster", and my pick for best-worst movie of the series, "Eegah"--you HAVE to see this movie to believe it. My favorite scene: a boy and girl take a dune-buggy out into the desert to look for the girl's missing--perhaps injured and dying--father; but first...a snazzy sequence of hot-rodding shots over the dunes to some knock-off Beach Boys music! Truly stupefying! Comprising the framework of the series was the delightful Laraine Newman portraying a Chief Usherette for an old movie palace exhibiting a "film festival" of bad films. Various "friends" would drop by each week to dish on the movie in question. All in all, I remember this fondly as a great chance to catch these rarely-seen "classics" back in '86.
A Beautiful Mind (2001)
If this TRIPE wins Best Picture, I'll give up movies forever!
May I first say what a fine addition this movie will make to Lifetime's library of theatrical motion pictures. Ah, how I look forward to seeing this garbage every three months for the rest of my life on 'television for women'. P-yooo, what a stinker! I knew I was in trouble when James Horner's score started a whole minute before the credits--I had to endure endless logo reels from Universal, Dreamworks (a real bladder-buster) and Imagine before the credits even began. And what's the first credit card on screen? Universal Dreamworks Imagine present! Talk about ego!
To paraphrase a character in the movie, both Ron Howard's treacly direction and Akiva Goldsman's simplistic script are both WITLESS and OBVIOUS. This is nothing you haven't seen a thousand times before on a Sunday night on CBS. Whatever quality this movie may possess rests solely on the shoulders of Russell Crowe. His dedicated performance is the glue that holds this gooey mish-mash together from start to finish. (Though, I must confess, I won't lose any sleep if Denzel Washington wins the Oscar this year.) Crowe rises above the mostly temporarily-tepid talents of everyone around him to make every scene he's in at least appear to be trenchant. I can only guess that it is Crowe's unflinching energy throughout that is giving life to the ridiculous critical attention this movie as a whole has attained in recent months. Yet when Crowe is off the screen, we remember just how stuck we are in yet another TV disease-movie-of-the-week. Regarding Jennifer Connelly's performance, oft-lauded of late, let me say this: I'll be the first to admit that both she and her role fit like a hand-in-glove; which is to say, how fortunate it was of Ron Howard to find a two-dimensional actress to portray a two-dimensional character.
Anachronisms abound in this movie, particularly in the dialogue. And where did that huge budget go? A couple of Packards and an old Olivetti? And for some reason, the makeup has been nominated for an Oscar. What braniac on the makeup staff forget to fill in Adam Goldberg's huge earring holes? (I guess his character likes to play pirates on the weekend.) But the most egregious faults of this film lay in Goldsman's cheesy love-conquers-all approach and outrageous alteration of the facts. A disclaimer at the end of the movie states that "...a number of incidents have been fictionalized...". A number?! Not "some". Not "a few". But "a number"? Okay, how about...uh...82? That's a number. That the producers would purport for a moment that this movie bears anything close to the truth is a crime in itself. And the attitude that hand-holding, bear-hugs and doe-eyes is a valid treatment for a severe mental illness is an insult to one's intelligence. They would have you believe that WUV cures EVERYTHING: schizophrenia, typhoid, lupus, psoriasis, herpes, dandruff, you name it.
That this movie would even for a moment be considered a potential member of a pantheon of pictures which includes "On The Waterfront", "The Godfather" or "Lawrence of Arabia" is terrifying to imagine. Any one of the other four Best Picture Oscar-nominees this year is superior in every respect to this emperor-with-no-clothes. I'm not kidding--if this dreck wins, I'm off movies for the rest of my life.
Deadly Medicine (1991)
Another solid Hamel performance
Hamel is earnest and convincing as a pediatrician recently relocated to a small Texas town. Just as everything starts to fall into place--a growing practice and a new country home being built by her supportive husband--tragedy strikes when a young patient dies in her care and foul play is suspected. Could the big-city doctor have created the emergency situation in order to play "savior" at the last second, or is her dedicated former pediatric-ICU nurse to blame? Pic follows Hamel as virtually everything she's worked so hard for gradually falls apart. Richard Colla's straightforward, unpretentious direction is a tremendous asset and helps offset the occasionally predictable plotting, unremarkable electronic score and a very, very pat (though satisfying) ending. Hamel is terrific, as usual; Ruttan impresses as the obviously disturbed nurse (her arrest scene is quite, well, "arresting"). Altogether, a satiating drama.
Been there, done that...
It was no doubt daunting to the makers of "X-Men" that there were hundreds of thousands of X-MEN fanatics who were as likely to vilify it's latest incarnation as embrace it. Fans of the comic book need not have worried; this flick will not disappoint. But those countless millions who don't know an X-man from a Y-chromosome may feel otherwise. For all its earnestness and technical competence, "X-Men" is a classic case of cinematic 'deja vu'. Whatever vivacity Tim Burton was able to inject into 1989's wildly popular "Batman" has long since dissipated--witness the disappointing reception to its last sequel and the recently cancelled resurrection of the "Superman" franchise. "X-Men" does little, if anything, to raise the bar for the genre--it's little more than a 'good mutants versus bad mutants' tale with a little quasi-racism thrown in for flavor. Plus, too little is made of the oppression suffered by mutants in a mortal's world, just as too little is made of the too-few characters in this plotline. Yet even after apparently distilling the "X-Men" pantheon of mutants into a handful of characters for the movie version, scant use is made of the many serviceable actors hired. It's seems ironic to see so much one-dimensionality in a movie based on a minimally two-dimensional source. But the in-bred success of "X-Men" will no doubt beg a sequel, not to mention inspiring even more comic-borne adaptations. Come to think of it, "Spider-Man" starts production this Fall.
Erin Brockovich (2000)
Three cheers for Julia!
After countless fluffy roles in a number of alternately respectable or forgettable pictures, Julia Roberts has finally been given another substantive character to play, and a true-life one to boot; like the woman she portrays, once she sinks her teeth into something she never lets go. Roberts is a natural to play Brockovich, an effervescent though uncouth woman prone to low-cut tops and high-cut skirts in equal proportion. Struggling to raise three children after her second divorce, Erin's relentless job search is interrupted by a debilitating fender bender. Feeling slighted by her not entirely fruitful attorney (Albert Finney), she transforms his guilt into a full-time clerical position at his law firm. Forming the crux of the storyline is her discovery in a series of real estate case files some hundreds of illnesses plaguing the citizens of Hinkley, a small desert community north of Los Angeles. During her subsequent investigation, Erin's innate empathy and kinship for fellow blue-collar families inspires her to uncover a conspiracy by a multi-billion dollar public utility to dispel its liability for the community's failing health. What could have played as yet another weepy disease-of-the-week telefilm is invigorated by Roberts, Susannah Grant's snappy script and the on-target direction by Steven Soderbergh. Rarely bogged down by lulls of requisite exposition, "Erin Brockovich" is briskly carried aloft on the shoulders of no-holds-barred Roberts, who gleefully understands her character's motivation and relentlessly pursues her course, even at the risk of increasingly neglecting her children and current beau. Too-long missing from American cinema, this entry in the "triumph of the little guy" oeuvre is too irresistible to dislike and too satisfying to dismiss.
Wonder Boys (2000)
One of those rare movies for 'grown-ups'
Grady Tripp is having a verrrry bad weekend. A renowned but disheveled author now teaching at a Pittsburgh university, he's hit a bit of a dry spell since his last book was a hit with the critics and the public seven years ago. It's not that Grady can't write--he just can't stop. But like Grady himself, what he has written doesn't seem to know where it's going. If that isn't bad enough, for the next two days he'll have to contend with chronic blackouts, an increasingly anxious editor, his impending divorce, the pregnancy of his girlfriend (and boss' wife), the advances of a comely co-ed, and the inscrutable behavior of a promising but sullen writing student. Ironically, the onus is also on director Curtis Hanson who follows up his near-classic "L.A. Confidential" with this serio-comic character study of an aging former-hippie (Douglas) suffering dire consequences by zealously avoiding life-altering decisions at every turn. Saddled with a refreshingly unpredictable story that is equal parts drama, farce, satire and black comedy, Hanson admirably maintains a well-modulated tone without the potentially distracting dynamism that necessarily propelled "L.A. Confidential". As head of the trio of titular characters, Douglas uses his imminent physical deterioration to perfectly embody Grady; he's just old enough to accept as a fugitive from the sixties but not too far gone to still be attractive to the ladies. Ably supporting Douglas are the other two Boys: Robert Downey, Jr., as a libidinous editor inches away from the bread line if he doesn't scrounge up another hit, and Tobey Maguire, whose hangdog quality again serves to present a disarming naivete which actually masks complex underpinnings. Frances McDormand and Katie Holmes make the most of their brief roles as Douglas' enciente lover and would-be fling, respectively. Unlike the path Grady Tripp ventures for 48 hours, the fine line Wonder Boys walks between affirmation and oblivion is blessedly bold, original and assured.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
But for the supernatural element, tone is similar to "Kramer vs Kramer"
Here is an unexpectedly poignant and utterly unpretentious ghost story. Bruce Willis is understated but effective as a child psychologist who is compelled to redeem a past failure by counseling a troubled 8-year-old boy who eventually professes to being able to "see dead people". Never gimmicky or over-the-top, "The Sixth Sense" presents us with three very real people: Willis, the boy (Osment) and his mother (Collette), each trying to cope with a unique personal trauma. Not unlike "The Exorcist", the film draws us into the characters' dilemmas by devoting much of its first half to letting us empathize with the leads and share in their lives, then compelling us to experience their mounting turmoil. But unlike so many horror films of the past 20 years, "The Sixth Sense" unexpectedly eschews cheap shocks and gore for simple, potent drama and the painful revelations that accompany life and death. The three leads are uniformly excellent, but it is Willis who surprises; never in his career has Willis relied so predominantly on the subtlest of facial expressions to convey his emotional state, and here he accomplishes this vital feat admirably.
Stir of Echoes (1999)
Effective but ultimately familiar
A moody tale of a Chicago working-class stiff (Bacon) whose paranormal talents are suddenly, and acutely, vivified during an ad-hoc hypnosis session. Slowly but surely, brief flashes of a sorrowful specter in his home turn to increasingly disturbing glimpses of the ghost's demise. Compounding his confusion are the discovery of his young son's identical proficiency and the simultaneous estrangement of his skeptical wife. Bacon impresses as the victim of his newfound ability whose once-regrettably ordinary life takes an abrupt about-face after his transformation into a "receiver". Cope is equally affecting as Bacon's son whose already developed psychic aptitude is as natural for him as bouncing a ball. It is unfortunate that a few elements of the story mimic the concurrent "Sixth Sense", but the facsimiles are forgivably minor. It is, however, the presence of other key plot points that make "Stir Of Echoes" too familiar for comfort. The blue-collar perspective is a welcome change of pace, but aside from that approach little is shown that hasn't been seen before, particularly when the payoff is all too similar to a featured sequence from 1983's memorable "The Dead Zone". The faintest recall of that haunting mini-classic will immediately telegraph the climactic events of "Stir Of Echoes" long before Bacon begins to put the pieces together.
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
A lot of fun if you don't expect too much
The ads promise that "heads will roll"; this is decidedly not metaphorical. Indeed, from start to finish in "Sleepy Hollow" noggins are lopped off with alarming frequency. Tim Burton's sabbatical from directing (since 1996's befuddled "Mars Attacks") is gleefully broken by his take on the "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow", in this instance a murder mystery that is only tangentially related to the Washington Irving classic. Depp is convincing as Ichabod Crane, a foppish constable devoted far more to "cause and consequence" than the paranormal. His reasoning is severely tested when charged with solving a series of mysterious and graphic murders in the eponymous hamlet in upstate New York. Confounding his analysis are clues defying scientific approach and his attraction to the ethereal Katrina (Ricci), leading him to suspect that the vengeance-driven 'Headless Horseman' is all too other-worldly. Not unexpectedly, Burton's reputation for evocative production design and photography is well-evidenced here. Awash in a spectrum of greyish hues resembling a charcoal drawing (save for occasional splashes of crimson), his vision of a spooky village and surrounding wood help serve an only-satisfactory tale of mayhem on the eve of the 19th century. Buoyed by a lively finale and spectacular stunt work by the 'Horseman' (Ray Park, who impressed as Darth Maul in "Phantom Menace"), this edition of Sleepy Hollow is an amusingly creepy diversion.
Worthy theatrical counterpart to the series
This hysterically funny satire of state-of-the-art Americana (and Canadana?) is littered with children spouting profanity...which is precisely what the movie is all about! "South Park-BL&U" is a take-it or leave-it commodity; either you "get it" or you don't. I did. Comedy Central's infamous animated flagship arrives in theaters unfettered by what little censorship exists in basic cable's nether-regions, featuring our stalwart heroes Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cheesy Poof-gobbling Cartman. What we are offered is a razor-sharp observance of patented American alarmism and the current trend toward attempts to censor every aspect of media. No institution is spared: the military, U.S./Canada relations, the Motion Picture Association of America, even the ubiquitous Baldwin brothers. The jokes come hard and fast as our heroes' parents declare war on our northern neighbors for corrupting their children's "fragile little mind(s)" via a profanity-laden Canadian movie with heavy kid-appeal. The song score is a treasure trove of pseudo-Broadway-style anthems (well-orchestrated by the under-appreciated Marc Shaiman) though "Kyle's Mom Is A B****", presented a la "It's A Small World", is the most memorable. Besides, how many movies made today can cause such a brouhaha...while being about a movie that causes a brouhaha?
The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)
This is one affair worth having
When stealing a Monet from the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the only way left to get your jollies, how does a brilliant, successful narcissist find greater challenges in the 90's? By matching wits with another brilliant, successful narcissist, of course. This glossy, romantic trifle shares only the cat-and-mouse premise of the memorable, then-innovative 1968 caper film (starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway), but the updated result is still vastly entertaining. What's especially impressive is that this reworking actually features leads who are older than their 60's counterparts when the original was made. Brosnan and Russo, both well into their forties, are an attractive match and convincingly play passionate lovers as well as any WB-network twenty-somethings competing for your movie dollar these days. Especially pleasing in "The Thomas Crown Affair" are plot points that steer clear of developments exhibited in the original; this remake (for a change) is fresh enough on its own terms that any degree of familiarity with the 1968 version is immaterial. Particularly satisfying are the climax and denouement which develop naturally and delightfully on their own terms. The premise is seductive, the romance is appealing and the direction by McTiernan is assured.
For Mike's sake, thank goodness for bathroom walls
Only in America could a one-and-a-half joke premise be stretched out over two barely amusing movies. It's difficult to ponder how a rough draft-quality script like this could generate over $200 million in domestic ticket sales. It's also sad to think that the only two jokes I laughed at in the entire picture were probably made up on the spot. Considerably better-mounted than it's frugal predecessor, the second "Austin Powers" movie is still a pallid parody of 60's spy films, tolerable only for Mike Myers' irresistible characterizations of Powers and his arch-nemesis, Dr. Evil. Myers' talents as a performer are inestimable, to be sure, but one can live off the drippings of luck for only so long before people demand something substantive. In "Powers II" (and "I", as well), the scenario is barely held together by a string of frequently tasteless bathroom humor; you'd think with his Scottish ancestry, Mr. Myers could elect to take the high road once in a while.
The World Is Not Enough (1999)
At least it made a lot of money
Pierce Brosnan returns in his third outing as Bond, James Bond, and it's obvious he's growing more comfortable in the role each time. That's the good news. Aside from the laconic ease and distinctive stamp Brosnan has placed on his performances as 007, this entry in the nearly 30-year-old series does little to enhance the legendary character beyond updating the periphery with different locales (in this case, eastern Europe) and gadgets a bit more farfetched within today's context than they were during the 60s (as evidenced by a holographic projector a bit more suited to the 23rd than late 20th century). This time out, Michael Apted handles the reins and, apart from the usual competently designed and executed stuntwork (including a splendid boat chase along the Thames), little drama is in evidence. Carlyle plays a subtly icy terrorist (all too briefly, as it turns out), Dench is stalwart as Bond's frequently disapproving 'M', and Marceau offers a admirably nuanced turn as James' inscrutable love interest, Elektra King. But whatever thespianic points they score for the home team, many more are lost by the woefully inadequate Denise Richards, here doing her best (or is it worst?) Malibu Barbie-nuclear physicist imitation. With each successive bi-annual visit from the world's greatest secret agent, one always hopes that "this one" will top them all, that this will be the chapter that has as many killer script ideas as killer villains (e.g., "Goldfinger", "On Her Majesty's Secret Service", "Octopussy"). Oh, well. There's always 2001.
This year's forget-your-troubles flick
With the success of "Saving Private Ryan" a couple of years ago, is it any wonder that a resurgence in World War II-themed adventures would result? One of the first to arrive is this very serviceable underwater yarn, an entertaining fictionalization of Allied submariners attempting to obtain a coveted decoding device from a disabled German submarine. Matthew McConaughey anchors an earnest cast through the rigors of a dangerous mission fraught with machine gunfire, torpedos and (lots and lots of) depth charges. "U-571" is loaded with all the technical innovations of modern Hollywood: utterly meticulous production design, convincingly claustrophobic cinematography and near-deafening 6-track sound effects. Thematically, though, it owes more than a tip of a hat to the flurry of exercises in American propaganda in the 1940s and 50s than the more multi-layered contemporary submarine blockbusters like "Das Boot", "The Hunt For Red October" and even "Crimson Tide". Which is not to say "U-571" isn't worthwhile on an escapist front. But for every bonafide thrill it has to offer, sacrifices are made in the 'minor' departments: subtext, character development, and any opportunity to examine the folly of war itself. But once in a while, though, it's 'okay' to leave your moral thinking cap at home. Just don't forget to bring your ear plugs.
The Insider (1999)
What price truth?
At what point can knowledge be deemed "too expensive" to reveal, even when it would eventually save thousands of lives? How thin can one's integrity be stretched before you can no longer live with yourself? These are just a sample of the themes explored in Michael Mann's engrossing "The Insider", a parallel examination of former tobacco executive Jeffrey Wigand's whistleblowing 1996 testimony against corporate giant Brown & Williamson, and "60 Minutes" segment producer Lowell Bergman's struggle to expose Wigand's sobering evidence to the public. The screenplay's structure is intriguing: as we follow Wigand's back-against-the-wall attempt to reclaim a modicum of self-respect after years of looking the other way, he concurrently loses all of the treasures, both meaningful and materialistic, he has accumulated in his career. Comparatively, as Bergman struggles to bring to light Wigand's shocking revelations, his once-united front of journalistic truth crumbles as his "60 Minutes" colleagues cave in to the potentially devastating legal ramifications of revealing to the public information that Wigand is forbidden to share. All of the Mann touches are here: the good (muted wide-screen compositions, unusual soundtrack selections) and not-so-good (too-frequent hand-held shots, overlength, underwritten female roles). In any event, this trenchant true story (despite some dramatic license and composite characters) is well-served, particularly by Crowe (nearly unrecognizable as Wigand) and Pacino (convincing as the relentless Bergman). So focused are these two, whether together on-screen or apart, they are never less than riveting.
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
An involving mystery thriller
Oh, what a tangled web we weave...especially when murder is your only means of escape. Matt Damon plays Tom Ripley, a cunning sociopath whose talents for manipulation go untapped until he is mistaken for a "somebody" and dispatched to Europe to retrieve the estranged son of a wealthy American shipbuilder. His objective is soon displaced by a growing fascination with the lifestyle of bon vivants Dickie and Marge (Law and Paltrow), who welcome the enigmatic Tom into their home, heart and wallet. Little do they realize to what lengths Tom will go to maintain his now-treasured social status. "English Patient" director Anthony Minghella has impressively adapted Patricia Highsmith's acclaimed novel of a young man's dangerous obsession with materialism and identity and presents (with cinematographer John Seale) an utterly convincing late-50's environment via picturesque Italian locations. Comparisons between "Ripley" and Alfred Hitchcock's "Strangers On A Train" are inevitable since Highsmith was the author of both and the premises are similar. But "Ripley" replaces "Stranger"'s subtle homosexual subtext with a somewhat overt subplot detailing the growing attraction Tom develops for Dickie (all but implying a direct connection between homosexuality and homicide) which almost overshadows the more important obsession/compulsion plot-line. The casting in Ripley is impeccable down to the tiniest role. Law, Paltrow and Blanchett (in a crucial supporting performance) all shine, but Damon is particularly effective. While anyone else might have overplayed the character, Damon employs an almost automatonic attitude whenever Tom Ripley is 'off'. His character seems incapable of being anything but an imitation of humanity whenever he is required to be social. But when Ripley is alone, Damon is amorphous, stoically waiting for any stimulus or circumstance with which to ingratiate himself. It is a daring but wise artistic approach.
Pushing Tin (1999)
A decent in-flight meal, but too much turbulence
Here's 1999's winner for the film least likely to be shown during an overseas flight. Cusack stars as a hotshot air traffic controller whose top dog status is threatened by the arrival of the equally gifted but enigmatic Billy Bob Thornton. Cusack's mounting rivalry with the inscrutable Thornton eventually consumes his personal life as he falls prey to Thornton's sexy wife (Angelina Jolie) and his marriage (to Cate Blanchett) gradually disintegrates. Director Mike Newell showed great flair in balancing comedy and drama in 1994's "Four Weddings And A Funeral", but here the mix is less assured and the extremes far too close together. Only fitfully amusing, "Pushing Tin" too rarely concentrates on its examination of air traffic controllers and their daily stresses, opting instead for a simple one-upmanship plotline with a superficial and sometimes flippant look at the men and women within whose hands we entrust our lives. The four leads are more than adequate in their roles, though the characters portrayed by Blanchett and Jolie (excellent during her brief appearances) are all but forgotten for long stretches at a time. As for rental possibilities, visibility should remain zero.
The Green Mile (1999)
By far, 1999's most moving film
1994 saw a modest Stephen King novel translated into a modest, little-seen prison drama...that is, until it was blessed with a surprising seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. Since then, everyone and their grandfather has espoused "The Shawshank Redemption" as the little movie that could...and did. Five years later, its director, Frank Darabont, has adapted yet another prison-based King tale into a highly pleasing entertainment. But there the similarities end. While "Shawshank Redemption" essentially belied its typically macabre Kingian origins, but for a similar tone and languid pace "The Green Mile" includes a crucial plot element not atypical from the horror-meister's oeuvre. Told in flashback, a former death-row prison guard (solidly played by Hanks) relates the extraordinary story of John Coffey (Duncan), a simple-minded and gentle inmate who is readily accepted as a killer in the summer of 1935 because of his hulking size and damning circumstantial evidence. But Coffey (initials J.C., ahem), in addition to his overwhelmingly considerate attitude, possesses a singular talent for psychic empathy with others and an ability to heal the sick. Gradually, he convinces most of his captors, to varying degrees, that he is not a man capable of the heinous crime he is condemned to die for imminently. Compounding their crisis of conscience are the presence of a callous fellow guard and a psychotic neighboring inmate. Despite its over-length (by at least 20 minutes), the 3-hour "Green Mile" succeeds in every other respect. Often moving and technically astute, its premiere quality lies within its ensemble of actors, each of whom is simply perfect in their respective roles. Hanks may be the star of the show, and Duncan may stand out because of the uniqueness of his character, but their co-stars are consistently equal to the standard they've both set throughout. That alone is reason enough to see "The Green Mile".
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
No masterpiece, but a worthy farewell
An intriguing tale of a beautiful everycouple who have it all: perfect looks, perfect daughter, perfect Park Avenue apartment. A perfect life, that is, until the night the everyman discovers that his everywoman...isn't. The wife's shocking revelation of adulterous temptations prompt the husband to embark on a ill-fated nocturnal attempt to shed his everyman status. What follows is a nightmarish odyssey that is both disturbing and mesmerizing. Exhibiting his trademark simultaneous melding of drama, satire, horror and irony, "Eyes Wide Shut" is a fitting memorial to Stanley Kubrick's extraordinary career. The casting of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman may seem like a gimmick or marketing ploy, but they easily acquit themselves, particularly Kidman who impresses in her handful of scenes. Cruise may seem colorless in his role but that is the intent--he's a straight-shooting do-gooder whose self-control is painfully incongruous next to the depravity around him. His attempted membership in seediness is revoked at every turn, hampered by his impenetrable virtue. The much-discussed "orgy" sequence is actually pretty tame (compared to like material in much harsher R-rated fare) due to the ridiculous post-production insertion of computer-generated characters discreetly masking certain areas within the frame. Unfortunately, what should have been a truly potent sequence is now distilled into a mere suggestion of the darker side of fortune. (Why Kubrick was not more averse to its alteration is a mystery in itself.) "Eyes Wide Shut" is, alas, not the masterpiece one had hoped for. But who said it has to be? Good Kubrick beats great anyone-else any day!