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Sin City (2005)
Sin City: 9/10
29 April 2005
I wasn't really cognizant of the release of Pulp Fiction, as I was at the age of six. But I can see how it could have changed the history of cinema and how it effected the times. And when fanboys all over the USA heard about Sin City, based on three of Frank Miller's cult graphic novel series, they all clamored that it would be the next Pulp Fiction. Why would these people say that? Maybe it's how the ads plastered "Guest Director Quentin Tarantino" all over the place. Or maybe it's because it has a similar "neo-noir" style. Or maybe even the three-intersecting-storyline aspect. Whatever the case may be, Sin City turned out to not be the next Pulp Fiction. But it's just about as cool.

Sin City's comprised of three stories which all take place in Basin City, or Sin City, where prostitutes and hit men are rampant all over the streets. In "The Hard Goodbye," Marv (Mickey Rourke), after sleeping with Goldie (Jaime King), finds her dead and goes on a rampage to avenge her death. In "The Big Fat Kill", Dwight (Clive Owen) helps out a bunch of prostitutes reclaim the streets from the cops. And in "That Yellow Bastard", Hartigan (Bruce Willis) goes to find Nancy (Jessica Alba), whom he saved years earlier from a man who's been colored yellow (Nick Stahl) after Hartigan...rendered him useless. Actually, there's a short fourth story as the bookends to the movie from "The Customer is Always Right" with Josh Hartnett.

If there could be one cliché phrase to describe Sin City, it would be "style over substance." Shot almost entirely in black and white (save for some well-placed color images), and with computer generated backgrounds (like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, except people saw Sin City), it looks great. It looks almost exactly like Miller's graphic novels, including some segments with pen-and-ink graphics to completely replicate Miller's novels. Anyone who dislikes Sin City says that it didn't have enough story. But when you see the trailers, you know that this is what you're getting. You're getting the best-looking movie of the past few years. It's better than all of these so-called "advancements" in CGI. It does for visual film-making what Peter Jackson's Braindead did for blood.

Of course, there's also no denying the absolute...coolness of the plot. It's a complete guy's movie: every female character is either a prostitute, stripper, has a nude scene, or a combination of all three. All of the guys have guns and kill and torture people. It's almost like an old-time Western, or something like that, except with more blood and female nudity. The way that the plot is connected is done in a very cool way, with a little connection between them all. And we can't forget about director Robert Rodriguez's ultra cool direction. With Rodriguez, there's never a dull moment in the film. It's a non-stop ride, which is already getting me excited for Sin City 2 and 3.

All of the actors were great in portraying their tough-as-nails characters. The standouts, though, were Owen and Benecio Del Toro (who was also in "The Big Fat Kill"). They're just the coolest characters, played by two of the best modern actors. Their standout scene is the scene that Tarantino directed, with the two of them in a car. That scene can basically sum up the whole movie. It's absurd, violent, weird, and absolutely bloody fantastic.

My rating: 9/10 Rated R for sustained strong stylized violence, nudity and sexual content including dialogue.
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Robots (2005)
Robots: 8/10
16 April 2005
Although it was a moderate success, no one really remembers Ice Age (although there is a sequel to it coming out). The studio combination who did that movie now have done Robots. They obviously must have read my Ice Age review, with my criticism of the humans in that movie, because there are none here in Robots. Instead, Blue Sky creates characters that basically look like whatever they want. And I have to say, it's a big improvement.

Rodney Copperbottom (Ewan McGregor) is a lower-class robot who is made from hand-me-down parts. He, along with most of the other robots, look up to and idolize Bigweld (Mel Brooks), the friendly, helpful leader of the corporation that makes all of the robot parts. Rodney decides to invent something and show it to Bigweld, so he goes to Robot City to try and meet him. However, Bigweld has become reclusive and the company's been taken over by Ratchet (Greg Kinnear), an evil robot. Rodney's taken under the wing of Fender (Robin Williams), a bum of a robot, and his friends, who include a smattering of pseudo-celebrity voices. Rodney has to go find Bigweld, stop Ratchet and his evil plans, and go deeper into an amazingly animated world.

Animation's basically staying the same these days. Ever since Toy Story, studios have gone with the "if it ain't CGI, don't make it" strategy, and it's seemed to hold up well box office-wise. Robots is a CGI animated film. And it's not as groundbreaking animation-wise as, say, Shrek was. But the sheer complexity of the film completely overwhelmed me. There are a few sequences that are just breathtaking, such as the public transportation in Robot City and Bigweld's dominoes. During those scenes, you just think to yourself, "Why aren't other movies this fun?" And that's all Robots is-fun. It's a simple movie that can be enjoyed by kids and adults. Not only can everyone enjoy the visuals, but the script (by those bad boys of comedy Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel) has both adult and child humor (such as "making a baby" and the onslaught of fart noises, respectively).

People have also said that Robin Williams adds a lot to the comedy, which is a total lie. Williams has been going downhill ever since his magnum opus Mrs. Doubtfire, and Robots is here to prove it. Williams seems to just keep on talking and talking without really knowing what he's saying, and most of it isn't funny. Luckily, there's an amazing supporting cast to pick up his pieces. Although McGregor's accent comes and goes, there's Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent (playing a woman), Brooks, Amanda Bynes (although I'm not sure if that's an asset to the movie...her lines just seemed embarrassing), Drew Carey, Jennifer Coolidge, Paul Giamatti, Kinnear, Stanley Tucci, Dianne Wiest, Harland Williams...the list goes on. The superb cast really adds a lot to the movie. They play off of the animation, and the combination works really well.

Have I any complaints, you ask? I would have liked to have seen more, but it's an animated movie, not Apocalypse Now. Also, at the end, there's the obligatory huge dance scene at the end. If there's a more blatant rip off of Shrek's unnecessary dance scene, I haven't seen it. Still, though, Robots is a true family movie, something we haven't seen for a long time.

My rating: 8/10 Rated PG for some brief language and suggestive humor.
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Constantine (2005)
Constantine: 7/10
20 March 2005
Did you see Exorcist: The Beginning? Neither did most people, but I found it to be a creepy drama with great acting and terrible direction. Francis Lawrence's Constantine is the opposite: there's terrible acting and good direction. Both are similar to each other in plots: they're both supernatural thrillers about demon-fighters. They both also star actors who are pretty cool, and both movies are pretty creepy. That's why I liked both about the same.

John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) tried to kill himself when he was younger and was literally seconds away from death and going to Hell. As an adult, he wants to get into heaven, and tries to do that by sending as many demons back to Hell as possible. He meets Angela (Rachel Weisz), whose twin sister committed suicide, and Constantine has to go and figure out what happened. Things get hairier, and there's Pruitt Taylor Vince. Need I say more? Constantine had a budget of about $100 million, and it shows. There's a lot of great images here, and about half the budget obviously went to Venetian blinds. The movie looked great, mainly thanks to Lawrence, who debuted with this movie. The opening scene, in particular, sticks with me. It's a typical scene that seems to be in all heaven/Hell dramas (an exorcism), but Lawrence's spin on it is truly unique, and makes it quite exciting. The movie is enthralling through its typical runtime (any comedy is 90 minutes and any drama/thriller is 120 minutes, no questions asked), and oftentimes quite exciting.

No one will doubt that Keanu Reeves was amazing in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. However, ever since that, everyone's realized that he can't really act. Stellan Skarsgaard in Exorcist was a lot better. Still, Reeves is pretty cool as Constantine, and you need to be a certain cool for this movie. He may not be the best actor, but he's cool nonetheless. Weisz does a pretty good job, too. Djimon Hounsou, the breakout star from that mediocre movie that everyone thought would win a bunch of Oscars but ended up flailing In America, shows up as a paranormal...guy...thing. His role's not really explained, but it's pretty cool (as is the guy's who lives in the back of the bowling alley). And Pruitt Taylor Vince.

People will dismiss Constantine as just a simple February release, trying to ride the coattails of Exorcist: The Beginning or something like that. Don't believe them. Although hardly original, Constantine is an enthralling, entertaining two hour thrill ride. And there's Vince.

My rating: 7/10 Rated R for violence and demonic images.
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Meet the Fockers: 8/10
11 March 2005
Can you remember all the way back to 2000? Julia Roberts stole her Oscar from Ellen Burstyn, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon opened the door for mainstream foreign movies, and Meet the Parents was nominated for one-only one-Oscar: Best Original Song. No Best Supporting Actor for the toilet-using Jinx the Cat. No Best Director for the scene where the human waste flies onto the house. Meet the Parents was robbed, I tell ya! Well, not really, but it surprised many people, especially skeptics thinking that Robert De Niro couldn't do comedy. Obviously, they were proved wrong, and therefore there were no surprises when Meet the Fockers came out. Except that this movie also featured Dustin Hoffman in his latest role (his fourth of the year) and Barbra Streisand in her first role since God knows when. Actually, strike that. I was surprised by Fockers, because I actually liked it. A lot.

Gaylord "Greg" Focker (Ben Stiller) and Pam Byrnes (Teri Polo), whose marriage was approved by Pam's parents Jack (De Niro) and Dina (Blythe Danner) in Parents, now have to go to Greg's parents before the wedding. The straight-laced Byrneses are in for a surprise when meeting Bernie (Hoffman) and Roz (Streisand) Focker. A liberal, carefree Florida retired couple, they couldn't clash any more with the Byrneses (of course, would it be much of a movie if they did?) The two families go through mishaps and misunderstandings, with very funny results.

One complaint I had with Parents is the sheer impossibility of some of the antics. Someone basically burning a house down, and then letting human waste cover the yard? Not only is it improbable, it's also crude. Focker only really had one scene of toilet humor (literally), and other than that, it was all slapstick or wordplay. Very funny slapstick and wordplay, I might add. Hoffman and Streisand play amazingly well off each other and everyone else. The casting of those two is probably the best casting choice of the year. This may be Hoffman's best role since The Graduate-no lie. The completely off the wall way he plays Bernie is great and really works well for the movie. In fact, all of the performances are great.

Not only that, but it's also funny as hell. It's mainly the typical zany mishap comedy, but there's a lot of great dialogue, too. The addition of a baby, Little Jack, added a good amount of humor (adding to the minor "breast pump" issue of the first movie). But LJ seemed to just be a necessity, to show that, yes, the two movies are different (as if the addition of Hoffman and Streisand weren't enough). Still, the laughs were constant and strong, something that can't really be said about almost any other comedy that's come out within the past five or so years (except for, of course Parents). Although I've been so tardy with my reviews (and I saw Fockers late in its run), I'd really suggest this movie. If you liked Parents, you'll like this one even more.

My rating: 8/10 Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, language and a brief drug reference.
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Hotel Rwanda (2004)
Hotel Rwanda: 8/10
26 February 2005
Whenever anyone mentions the Oscar-nominated (and hopefully winning) Hotel Rwanda, they (present company included) feel obliged to sing a parody of The Eagles's "Hotel California". Both are rather similar, actually. Both deal with destruction, whether it be small or massive, as is the case with Hotel Rwanda. I knew little of the Rwandan genocide (all of my information had come from a 6th grade teacher-her son was in Rwanda during the aftermath). Although movies can never not have a bias, I feel like seeing Hotel Rwanda was necessary in learning about something I otherwise wouldn't've. Plus, there's Don Cheadle.

Cheadle is Paul Rusesabagina, the owner of a high-scale hotel in Rwanda for rich white tourists. During this, the Hutus and Tutsis are in the middle of a genocide, leaving no one out of danger. Paul and his wife Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo) open up their hotel to any refugees (whether they be Tutsi or Hutu), as Nick Nolte comes in and attempts to shake off the heroin he shot up during the filming of The Good Thief.

Hotel Rwanda shows the true inhumanity man can have onto man. It opens up the door for people to examine how people treat each other. Showing how personally brutal this genocide was to the Rusesabaginas, and how it should have been to everyone else. The movie did an outstanding job of yelling at us Westerners for not really caring about Rwanda at that time (and we still really don't). There's not really much I can say on this movie. Everything stands out about it, especially Cheadle. If he wasn't up against Jamie Foxx for the Oscars, I'd root for him. But then there's the case of Sophie Okonedo. I really don't know what bugged me about her, but it just ruined the movie for me. Instead of this toweringly powerful film, it's just a very good one because of Sophie Okonedo. I really don't know what it was, but I recommend you see it and tell me.

My rating: 8/10 Rated PG-13 on appeal for violence, disturbing images and brief strong language.
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Million Dollar Baby: 9/10
17 February 2005
Million Dollar Baby is propaganda by the baby-killing liberals. As is every movie dealing with a controversial issue, especially ones made by those ultra-liberal people at Warner Bros. and that staunch Democrat Clint Eastwood. It seems like the only part of movies people talk about is the ending, even in crappy movies. Supposedly, prints of Hide and Seek were sent out without the final reel, so no one would know the ending until the time came (as if anyone cared). Remember the furor around The Sixth Sense's ending? Everyone knows it now, and if you're not careful, you'll uncover the ending to Million Dollar Baby-a true shocker, if there ever was one. It's unexpected, realistic, and powerful. Try getting that from Hide and Seek.

Hilary Swank (in what is sure to be her second Best Actress Oscar role) is Maggie Fitzgerald, a trailer-park wanna-be boxer who joins up in has-been Frankie Dunn's (Clint Eastwood) gym. Frankie has somewhat of a misogynist attitude, but agrees to train her, anyway. She rises through the circuits of boxing very quickly, and, although reluctantly, Frankie starts to admit that she's a good boxer.

Before I saw Baby, I thought for sure the Academy would finally give the best director award to Martin Scorsese for his mediocre work in The Aviator. But now, I think Eastwood's almost a shoo-in for Best Director. Eastwood frames each shot carefully, and creates the most drama possible from each one. Something that really stood out for me was his use of color. Oftentimes bleak, but always for a purpose, to elict some sort of feeling from the audience. Eastwood uses the minimum of, well, everything possible to make the mood as dreary and unwasteful as possible. And, much like Raging Bull (directed by Eastwood's current rival), the boxing scenes are completely realistic. Except you can tell Eastwood didn't cheat at all (like Scorsese probably did), as this movie is full color, and the boxing scenes build up so much tension it's almost impossible to believe. Million Dollar Baby has both that and the dramatic quality, which ranks it up with the top films of 2004.

The bigger question at hand is this: whodathunk that within five years, a relatively unknown actress will have had two roles of a lifetime and win best actress in five years. Swank was amazing (although not as amazing as Chloe Sevigny, who was robbed) as Brandon Teena/Teena Brandon in Boys Don't Cry, but better here in Million Dollar Baby. Her character is so determined, such a strong spirit basically rising from nothing, and Swank portrays Maggie extremely well. I guess she'll make Annette Bening lose again this year.

Is Million Dollar Baby the best picture of the year? No, mainly because in the last twenty or thirty minutes, it just drags on and on. The message and plot are clear, yet it continues to reiterate it over and over again. We know that the person wants to do something, and another person doesn't want that to happen, but seriously, do we need that extra fifteen minutes of no substance? That's the only complaint I have with this strong, strong movie. What's even better is that it's PG-13, meaning anyone can see it, which they should.

My rating: 9/10 Rated PG-13 for violence, some disturbing images, thematic material and language.
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Coach Carter (2005)
Coach Carter: 8/10
9 February 2005
Samuel L. Jackson can do no wrong (unless it involves a movie with the number 51 in it). Whether it's Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, or even XXX, Jackson always gives off an aura of "cool"-anyone would want to know him or be him in any of those characters, no matter how wrong the character was. The same holds true for his titular role in Coach Carter. Although it's not one of his "bad-ass" roles, he comes off as a cool person with a moral core. Ken Carter is the only character audiences can identify with, and therefore we go along with his actions, and understand his motives. Not only that, but it's a refreshing break from these Disney-produced "These people can do it, so so can you!" sports movies. Instead, it's a hard-hitting, tiring adventure through the true story (what else) of a Northern California town and their trials and tribulations.

Ken Carter (Jackson) is hired as the coach of an inner-city basketball team. They're a great team, but lack discipline and academic skills. Carter instigates a vigorous lateness policy (thousands upon thousands of warm-up exercises), and then locks down the gym when the team fails to maintain a 2.3 GPA. Carter handles all controversy handed to him in the typical Samuel L. Jackson manner.

Although unfairly compared to Remember the Titans, the two movies couldn't be any more different. Titans had Denzel Washington (who's nowhere near as cool as Jackson) in a sugar-coated movie about racism. Coach Carter IS racist (about a dozen or so n-words...where's Spike Lee on this one?), and there's no real message, except that knowledge is power (somewhat). Being that Carter's PG-13, unlike Titans's PG, it can get away with much more, with a more developed story. There's a lot of subplots, including drug deals and teen pregnancy. It's great to see such adult topics dealt with in a teen movie (well, it's somewhat like a teen movie). And it's not slammed down our throats, either. It's presented, and we take what we want out of it.

Not only that, but we're able to identify with Carter and his actions. Although they seem (and are) extreme, we can understand where he's coming from. It's like Kurt Russell's insistence in that one (the only good) scene of Miracle. Plus, there's Samuel L. Jackson, who can make everything except Formula 51 a gem. Plus, there's the fact that I saw the movie over a month ago, and don't really remember much from it. But it's surprisingly great for a January release, and one you should at least pick up on DVD.

My rating: 8/10

Rated PG-13 for violence, sexual content, language, teen partying and some drug material.
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In Good Company: 7/10
21 January 2005
There are three things you should never discuss with your barber: politics, religion, and the better of the two Quaid brothers. While most would probably say Dennis (present company included), don't give Randy the chop just because he hasn't hit a good role since the Vacation movies. But Dennis is becoming a less popular, less successful, less attractive Jude Law (he's been in four movies this year). The only one of his that became a large hit was The Day After Tomorrow. He, however, leads a talented cast in a movie by a talented writer. Paul Weitz (who, along with his brother Chris, made the American Pie movies and About a Boy) seems to have a knack for making "old people" movies (my God...I've never seen so many elderly people in a theater since I saw Closer!). Not that there's anything wrong with that-his movies deserve to bring in some bank.

Dan (Quaid) is an advertising executive whose company is taken over by Ted Turner, er, Teddy K (an uncredited Malcolm McDowell). Dan's demoted, much to his dismay, as his third child's on the way. Dan's new boss is Carter (Topher Grace), someone half his age. Through twists of fate, Carter winds up at Dan's house for dinner one night and meets his oldest (college-age) daughter Alex (Scarlett Johansson). They fall in love (behind Dan's back), and soon it becomes a battle of the class, so to speak. Is it truly age before beauty? There's something about In Good Company that was just a little bit off. It's hard to put a finger on it, but I think it's the lack of one central plot. It goes from Dan's demotion to Carter's takeover to Carter courting Alex to another corporate takeover, without much connecting it all. The story's probably one of the most plausible of 2004, what which this topsy-turvy economy, and the movie's hitting it close to home. The characters in In Good Company are pretty realistic. Dan's the average American dad who's going through the hell of putting money together for colleges. There's one part where I think Quaid's character wasn't consistent. When Dan's youngest (soon to be middle) child is on the phone with her boyfriend, Dan picks up another phone and makes a threatening comment, something I couldn't see an average parent doing. Carter is more defined and easier to see into, but is also a more challenging one to play. Quaid's a much more accomplished actor (I mean, come on...Cold Creek Manor AND The Alamo back to back?), but Grace seems to not do this just for the paycheck.

However, In Good Company didn't really have much of the humor that About a Boy or American Pie had. Company had a simple story, and some simple humor. It's not very complicated at all, one of those movies you can sit back and enjoy watching. It's not going to tax your brain, you'll have a few small larfs or two, and you may learn something about yourself. Well, probably not, but it beats doing crack.

My rating: 7/10 Rated PG-13 for some sexual content and drug references.
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Fat Albert (2004)
Fat Albert: 7/10
12 January 2005
Although I live in the suburbs of Philadelphia, I don't often go into town, especially into North Philly, where Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids hung out. Nor had I seen the TV show, but having grown up with the golden age of Nickelodeon with All That and Kenan and Kel, I almost religiously follow Kenan Thompson around (well...not really...but he's a young person's Morgan Freeman). He's kinda been in limbo since Good Burger (based on an All That) skit, until he got onto Saturday Night Live, and now he's here as Fat Albert. As I've said, I've never seen the show, so I can't comment on the authenticity of the whole movie (in fact, before the movie, all I knew of Fat Albert was that he was a Cosby creation and his patented "HEY HEY HEY!"), but I think I got the gist of Fat Albert's modus operandi of helping others.

Doris (Kyla Pratt) is a lonely kid in North Philly (wouldn't that mean that she goes to the Philadelphia school district? Yet the computer to kid ratio is 1:1?) whose sole solace is watching her favorite show every day, "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids". She's so upset that she begins to cry, and as her tears hit the remote control (I'm being serious here), Fat Albert (Thompson) and his friends jump out of the TV to help her solve her problems. Not only do they marvel at recent advances in technology (cans with the opener on them, rap music, etc.), but Fat Albert falls in love with Lauri (Dania Ramirez), Doris's half-sister. Fat Albert and his friends need to find the root of Doris's problem before they fade too much-the consequences of being out of the TV for too long.

Critics could dismiss Fat Albert as simple family entertainment, when it's really much more than that. Well, not much more, but still more than one'd expect. Instead of being one of those "farts for the kids, sex for the adults" kids movies (like Shrek 2), it's strictly tasteful humor, some the kids will laugh at and adults can enjoy. For example, kids will like the skateboarding mishap that Fat Albert goes on, and parents will laugh at the fact that Fat Albert's a fast runner, as per the TV show. Neither go over the heads of the other generation, and one can laugh at the other. It's this kind of humor that is sorely missing from cinema today. When Finding Nemo's "funniest line" is about "touching the butt," you realize that family movies are needed, not kids' movies. Fat Albert is a family movie-a simple message wrapped around light-hearted situations that everyone can understand and enjoy.

I'm sure the biggest question people ask is if Thompson is right for the role of the live-action Fat Albert. The answer is-yes. As I've said, I've never seen the TV show, but he seemed to have watch his fair share of the show. Supposedly, some of the characters were not very similar to the characters on the show, but the characters seemed to fill the daunting roles well (such as the aptly named Dumb Donald and Mushmouth). But when you have a silly, simple show like Fat Albert, you don't expect everything to be exactly the same (which is one of the reasons why I'm both looking forward to and dreading the Simpsons movie). Kids won't have seen the show, anyway. But that's not really even the important part of the movie. What's important is that the movie's funny and has a simple message for kids, both parts it fulfills. There were a few "mayhem=humor" moments, but even the rap scene wasn't bad. It's silly, it's fun. And the message is easily accessible for kids: be yourself. It's a message that's reiterated over and over, but it's an important message.

My one large complaint is how director Joel Zwick (who brought My Big Fat Greek Wedding to an obscene gross) seemed to treat this movie as a movie for adults (Greek Wedding was rated PG but was certainly not for kids). The way he moved the camera and tried to do a bunch of "nifty" camera tricks made the movie feel like it was in some sort of cinematic limbo-a family movie, yet somewhat of an Oscar contender or something among that caliber? But other than that, Fat Albert is a fun family movie. You may end up liking it more than your kids.

My rating: 7/10 Rated PG for momentary language.
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The Aviator (2004)
The Aviator: 7/10
1 January 2005
I can't really talk about Martin Scorsese's directorial credentials, as I've only seen three of his movies: Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and The Aviator. All of them have the same rating-why is that? Maybe it's Scorsese's inability to keep those movies under two hours (The Aviator clocks in at about three with previews), or since those three movies dealt on real people, did Scorsese and his screenwriters get their life stories wrong? Whatever the case is, they're all good, but maybe I'm just not able to appreciate everything Scorsese does. It's been two years since Leonardo DiCaprio's last role in Catch Me If You Can. He's not what everyone made him out to be after Titanic; he's no longer just an idol of teenage girls. Instead, he's proved himself to be a fine actor, one that's perfect to play Howard Hughes.

In the beginning of the movie, Howard Hughes (DiCaprio) is working on directing a huge epic movie. We have no backstory to him, which may have caused trouble later on. There's no telling of how he got his massive fortune, but I digress. He works for three or four years on his picture Hell's Angels, making it the most expensive movie at that time. The movie follows Hughes through his his tumultuous movie career, pioneering aviation career (such as buying TWA), his relationships with Katharing Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), and his insanity (spoofed brilliantly on The Simpsons, I might add). You'll also see Jude Law as Errol Flynn (in his sixth, and final, role of late 2004).

For its almost-three-hour runtime, The Aviator seemed to go by rather quickly. We have the great Howard Shore score, which is sometime mixed with music from the era, to create an odd-but interesting-effect. Scorsese's direction is great in some parts, but not in others. In the crash sequence, Scorsese finds ways to build up the tension (although the interior of the houses we see look quite late-1990s...), even though we know there's still at least an hour to go in the movie, yet when it comes to the tail end of the movie, when we see Hughes in all of his insane glory, we don't really see how he progressed from a mid-case OCDer to this completely delusional psycho. It's a complete transition. Although we do get a sense that Hughes is becoming more mentally unstable, it's just completely from left-field, and maybe instead of 15 minutes of showing how different he is from the Hepburn family, Scorsese could have showed what pushed him over the edge or something like that.

The movie looked pretty good. The cinematography was pretty good; it's probably the one Oscar that this movie is a shoo-in for. There's DiCaprio's acting, which'll be nominated, but won't win (obviously, Jamie Foxx for Ray). DiCaprio obviously studied Hughes and his mannerisms, and does a good job pulling him off, but can anyone compare him to what Hughes was really like? Acting out someone who no one remembers (personally) is kind of a cop-out for not having to do a top-notch acting job (see, Foxx didn't have it that easy for Ray Charles). Yet he still did a good job, and threw off any lingering "King of the World" thoughts that people had about him. Blanchett is quickly rising on my favorite actress list-this and The Life Aquatic back to back, great in both. There's John C. Reilly, who's a good actor, but whose voice is so damn recognizable it's hard to consider him a powerhouse actor. And Alec Baldwin. Remember when, in South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, the Baldwins' house, and everyone was happy? They were happy because Alec Baldwin couldn't play a character named JUAN! That's like Johnny Depp playing Fat Albert. It just doesn't work.

The Aviator is an entertaining movie. Sure, it drags for a bit, and is unnecessarily long, but it's never boring. It's by no means the year's best biopic (that goes to Ray), but it's an entertaining one.

My rating: 7/10 Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual content, nudity, language and a crash sequence.
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The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou: 9/10
28 December 2004
Warning: Spoilers
Wes Anderson, Alexander Payne, Paul Thomas Anderson, they're all in the new wave of young directors with a few quality films under their respective belts. They have respect all around the world, and don't regress into the "churn at least one or two out every year" phase some directors are in now. The most unique voice out of those three is Wes Anderson, truly a love-him-or-hate-him director. It's probably about even, the number of people who loved The Royal Tenenbaums versus the number that hated it. Barely anyone saw Bottle Rocket, and an unfortunate few saw Rushmore. For the past three years, Anderson has been working on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. When seeing the trailer, the same reactions-love or hate-prevailed. I couldn't wait to see it, and it turns out I survived the wait for a good reason.

Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) is a Jacques Cousteau-ish oceanographer whose crew member, in the process of filming their latest documentary, is eaten by a mysterious ocean animal, dubbed the Jaguar Shark. Team Zissou, which includes Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe), his wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), and a man who might be his son (Owen Wilson). As they go out on the open seas, Zissou's rival Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum) tries to catch Zissou in his unlawful ways (as it's illegal to kill that shark).

There's a certain style that Anderson has in his movies. It's like this surreal world where crazy things can happen, yet everything is still in today's timeframe, similar to Tenenbaums and its lack of a location (375th St. YMCA?). Anything can happen. The sets are wonderful-instead of tricking the audience into believing it's a real ship, we see the camera pan throughout, much like a stage set. Any animation is claymation (colorful claymation, I might add). The whole movie is wonderfully visual. And, as is the norm for every quirky movie of recent years, there has to be at least one moments that's extremely beautiful. In Tenenbaums, I'd say it's the final scene, as the camera pans to everyone coming to terms with everything that has happened. In Garden State, it's the scene with "The Only Living Boy in New York" playing. And in The Life Aquatic, I'd say that it's probably the end, when they're all in the submarine. The anticipation of two hours, and great music playing in the background, with stunning visuals-how can you not like it? Although The Life Aquatic isn't as character driven as, say, Tenenbaums, that's not to say that the characters aren't quirky or anything like that. There's Pele (Seu Jorge), who just sings David Bowie songs in Portuguese (and barely anything else). Dafoe's Klaus is definitely the greatest character in the movie. You don't expect Dafoe to be able to pull off comedy at all, but he's the funniest character of all. You wouldn't expect him to pull off a German(ish) accent well at all, either. But it works. And there's the rest of the crew of the ship, who aren't really recognizable. But this is definitely Murray's movie. He's in almost every scene, he has some of the best lines, the weirdest character, everything. Murray's a great comedian, and his deadpan performance (somewhat similar to Raleigh St. Clair in Tenenbaums) adds to the movie a lot.

I admire Anderson (and his new co-writer, Noah Baumbach) for being completely off the wall here, and stepping into action-movie territory ("We call them pirates out here"), completely randomly. But that's where I have my one complaint. Maybe it's just that Anderson and Baumbach were getting used to each other or something, but the story meanders somewhat. Throughout about an hour in the middle of the movie, the Jaguar Shark is not mentioned at all. It seems like the movie just has a completely different mission in the middle, and it's like a slap in the face when the plot comes back to it towards the end. But The Life Aquatic is very funny, nonetheless. The humor's not as quirky as Tenenbaums or Rushmore, so it's more accessible, and there's some truly funny stuff in here. Everything mixed together becomes one of the best movies of 2004. One that no one should pass by.

My rating: 9/10 Rated R for language, some drug use, violence and partial nudity.
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House of Flying Daggers: 7/10
23 December 2004
Although I was extremely upset that people thought that Quentin Tarantino directed Hero, at least it got people thinking about the movie. House of Flying Daggers, directed by Zhang Yimou of Hero fame, is quite similar to Hero (although Tarantino had even less to do with this one), in that it mainly relies on stunning visuals to tell its story. And those visuals are STUNNING. Both take place back in a time no one can remember, and deal with martial artists. And although Hero was Rashomonesque, Flying Daggers was pretty much original. However, the story lacked where Hero's was great.

Policemen Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau) try to find the House of Flying Daggers, an underground anarchist group. They suspect Mei (Zhang Ziyi), a blind showgirl at a house of ill repute, of being in the Flying Daggers. Jin leads Mei out to flee from the police, but in reality tries to capture her and the rest of the Flying Daggers.

The fight scenes (after all, this is an action movie) are both better and worse than Hero (I know I shouldn't just compare these two movies, but considering I don't know much about the genre, I fear I must). While Flying Daggers's fight scenes were cooler (I loved that one with all of the bamboo), they were few and far between. It seems like the story was (for some reason) attached to the love triangle shared by Jin, Leo, and Mei, when in fact it was basically a subplot, something that could have almost been forgotten about. There must be fifteen minutes of the movie with Mei making out with either Leo or Jin. Personally, I felt like it dragged the movie down. But the few fight scenes that were there was breathtaking to look at-it wasn't as "color-significant" as Hero, but it was still damn amazing-especially the climactic snow-fighting scene (which was incidental). Snow seems to make fight scenes better (see also: Kill Bill: Volume One), and here is no exception. Some of the cinematography is great, but nothing as spectacular as things we've seen before.

Many people criticized Hero for its lack of story, but I thought that that story was great (at least it had one, unlike Rashomon), but Flying Daggers's plot is almost nonexistent, at least until the last 45 minutes or so, where things happen left and right, and you can't follow what's happening. It's almost like an afterthought ("Let's put the romance first, then the action, THEN the plot!". Obviously, a deep story isn't the most crucial aspect of the movie, but it was annoying. But some of the aspects of the movie are just so cool you can forget about it-like the Echo Game. Some of the aspects (third use of the word in three sentences-not bad) of ancient Chinese culture are very interesting, and as they're showcased here, they're interesting to learn.

Ziyi does a great job as the blind girl-she had to learn all of the fighting movies WITHOUT looking at anything. Both Lau and Kaneshiro were pretty good, but acting's not the strong point in movies like this. Something else that wasn't strong was the attempt to give the movie a theme song. It was just lame. If you saw (and liked, obviously) Hero, you should give House of Flying Daggers a shot. It's not as good as the former, but it's still pretty good.

My rating: 7/10 Rated PG-13 for sequences of stylized martial arts violence, and some sexuality.
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Flight of the Phoenix: 6/10
18 December 2004
Remake season is usually from May-August, yet for some reason Flight of the Phoenix is coming out in December, right before Oscar season. From what I saw tonight, there were maybe 15 people in the theater for a 7:50 Friday evening showing (opening night). What could Fox have been thinking? A big budget blockbuster while we're waiting for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou or The Aviator to come out? Does that make any sense? Well, anyway, Phoenix certainly doesn't deserve a December release (April, maybe?), but it's still pure, simple escapist entertainment. Thankfully, it didn't try to be anything more (in fact, Dennis Quaid's character made fun of the inspirational talks in the movie), allowing it to be something to see on a boring Friday night.

When an unsuccessful oil drill is abandoned in a remote place in Asia, Frank Towns (Quaid) and others are sent to fly them back to civilization. However, there's one extra person on board, Elliott (Giovanni Ribisi), causing the plane to be overweight and crashing in the midst of a gigantic random storm. Things get hairier when they realize that help probably won't come. However, Elliot mentions that he designs airplanes (of course), and now they're hell-bent on rebuilding their plane (dubbed "The Phoenix"), while going through tough weather, low supplies, bandits, and interpersonal relationship hardships.

One almost expects Jerry Bruckheimer's name on this-it's mindless fun, with any plot being stupid, any special effect being fake, and any characters being underdeveloped. The fate of this movie, in my opinion, was in the hands of director John Moore, who last made Behind Enemy Lines a hit for Fox. During the so-called "action" scenes, Moore switches over to hand-held camera (as if he tries to get the audience to get into the movie-makes us think that a situation like this could happen in real life?) and really makes the movie disjointed at those few points. However, some of the shots are pretty fantastic looking, but at other times, it's completely false CGI. I mean, it's terribly fake-and some critics have been saying that the special effects are great? It's most obviously some backlot with fake sanddunes everywhere. And yet, somehow, Moore manages to keep interest for the two hours, and, more importantly, makes it fun to watch. When you have characters just randomly be introduced (like that person of unknown Middle Eastern descent and the black guy with an eyepatch), you realize that the plot is not important, and you focus on having fun.

I've seen a few ads that talk about the "HUGE" plot twist, and although the twist at the end was pretty good, it's not really noteworthy. However, there was something about Ribisi's character-and the way he played it-that made me really like him. He's like the bad guy in movies where you want the bad guy to win (although he's not really a bad guy here). Quaid does a pretty good job here, about what's required. His character, and all the others, fulfill the stock characters. We have the All-American pilot, the hot, smart woman (who's also sassy-add an extra point), the black guy, a black guy with an eyepatch (a disability AND an extra minority-five extra points), a person from a place that we currently hate (Middle East (actually two-Britain-wow, Flight of the Phoenix is raking up the point)), the computer nerd. And that's just the character clichés. There's boatloads more, but you'll be able to guess them as they come along.

Flight of the Phoenix will probably bomb at the box office. I suppose I can see why-you don't have enough advertising, you bomb. But Flight of the Phoenix is a true popcorn movie if there ever was one. Once you've gotten everything in the Netflix catalogue, try this one on for size.

My rating: 6/10

Rated PG-13 for some language, action and violence.
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Ocean's Twelve: 6/10
15 December 2004
It's inevitable, isn't it? After the success of the remake of Ocean's Eleven, out comes the sequel three years later. I liked the style of the teaser trailer (and was probably one of the only ones who didn't mind the name), so naturally, I was looking forward to the movie. Naturally, it's a sequel, so it's inferior to the original (which I liked more than the original of the original). The entire cast is back (plus one more, obviously) for the necessary foreign-country locations and trendy scene transitions. There's the constant music, the people with the general European accents (well, villains), and every other caper movie cliché in the books.

Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and his eleven/twelve compadres are forced to pay back the money that they stole from Terry Benedict's (Andy Garcia) casinos three years earlier. To get the money, they have to steal it in Europe.

Where the first movie was fun, this sequel was mildly entertaining. It went on a little long, but was never boring. It's watchable (as all crime movies like these should be), but not really entertaining. I wasn't having fun while watching a lot of Ocean's Twelve. I wasn't bored, either. I was in Limbo of the movie world. All of the Vegas glitz added to the first, and here it's drab European backgrounds. Steven Soderbergh's directing also makes the film harder to enjoy. The film's choppy-we don't see events that happened until after the fact (if that makes any sense), and there are so many subplots and characters with similar sounding names that eventually we stop caring. Whenever a movie makes me do that, I usually focus more in on the fun aspects of the movie. And sure, the movie had its fun moments, and never left me bored, but overall, it just lacked that ultra-cool style that the first one had.

Then again, every actor's back in cool form. Catherine Zeta-Jones is the newbie here, and although her character is barely defined, she still manages to be cool. George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt (being on screen probably more than anyone else), Matt Damon-they're all cool. But it's obvious that this isn't the best sequel that could have been made for Ocean's Eleven-the movie was originally written for a completely different movie, and then readapted to a sequel. Because of that, there aren't really any reminders on who these people were. I remembered Clooney, Roberts, Garcia, and a few character names and quirks (such as Pitt's obsessive eating), but, really, who were these people? Did Soderbergh think that we would all rush out to see the first one before seeing this? I'll bet as many people did that as the number who went to see the Russian Solyaris after Soderbergh made Solaris.

The caper this time around isn't as interesting (the major one doesn't come in until halfway through), nor as easy to follow. In fact, the whole movie's basically a convoluted mess. The subplot about Isabel's father, things like that...if there's a definition of worthless, that's it. Also, that "Julia Roberts" bit went on for too long. We got the joke there. At that moment, I think that the movie thought it was funny enough to abandon basically the entire plot and go with a ten minute schtick, when there was basically no other humor in the movie. Still, Ocean's Twelve isn't terrible, and can offer a good time if you're the right person.

My rating: 6/10 Rated PG-13 for language.
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Apocalypse Now: 8/10
11 December 2004
I think filmmakers need to know that the Vietnam War is over and done with. Although most were made in the 70s and 80s, there's been way too many Vietnam War movies. What's worse is that almost all, if not all of them, are great movies. And what's worst of all is that almost all of them are forgettable. No one can deny the power that Platoon had, but can you really remember much about it six months after seeing it? One month? That's the trouble with war movies in general. It's been about a month since I've seen Apocalypse Now (I've been busy), and I don't remember much about it. Even while watching the movie, I thought to myself, "Man, this movie is amazing, but it won't have any lasting effect." That's exactly the case.

Col. Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent by the military to eliminate Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) "with extreme prejudice". Supposedly Kurtz set himself up as a god among men in Cambodia, and Willard and Co. have to go and destroy him and his compound. Along the way comes Robert Duvall and a horde of random soldiers-the token black man (Laurence Fishburn) who has an odd nickname, the fish-out-of-water (Sam Bottoms), and more.

Sure, Apocalypse Now is long (two and a half hours), and at times it drags-especially when it comes to Duvall's random character. Perhaps I just don't remember it that well (see my first paragraph), but he just popped up. However, Francis Ford Coppola's movie does create a feeling of isolation and desperation. That's what all war movies are supposed to do, but Apocalypse Now does it better than others. In fact, the effect that the movie had on me while watching was tremendous-easily as heart-pounding as the first part of Full Metal Jacket, and was mixed with the sadness of inevitably knowing that I wouldn't remember this. But the acting's good (but Marlon Brando, man-he must've been in for about ten minutes), and as you're watching it, you'll love it. If you remember it afterward, you'll continue to love it.

My rating: 8/10

Rated R for disturbing violent images, language, sexual content and some drug use.
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Closer (I) (2004)
Closer: 8/10
5 December 2004
From September to the end of the year, Jude Law will have been in six movies-I ? Huckabees, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Alfie, A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Aviator, and Closer. I'm sure most people are sick of him, but I think he's a good actor, and I like seeing him take on different types of roles. Certainly, Closer is a different type of role, and Law gets to use his natural British tongue here. Law also has some great support here: Natalie Portman (coming off of her role in Garden State), Clive Owen (now becoming more mainstream thanks to...King Arthur?), and Julia Roberts (who'd think she'd be GOOD in something?). And when you're being directed by Mike Nichols, how bad can you really be?

Alice (Portman) is hit by a car and is taken to the hospital by Dan (Law). They fall in love. Dan has his picture taken by Anna (Roberts) and falls in love with her. He plays a trick on Larry (Owen) by pretending to be Anna online. Anna and Larry meet. They fall in love. Things continually get switched around like that.

Closer is based on a play by Patrick Marber. There can't be more than 10 scenes, most of the story is relied on by dialogue, and there's a scarce number of characters. Now, I'm not sure if it's that fact or not, but it seemed like Mike Nichols did an outstanding job directing. This could just be me and my quirky film tastes, but I loved how there was absolutely no sense of time. You saw two people together for ten minutes, then a new scene, where something obviously must have happened, but what? That's where the dialogue comes in. That's how we find out what has happened in the time lapses. It's Nichols not condescending to the audience. He's trusting us enough to put together the pieces for the movie. In a way, this movie reminded me a lot of Godard's Contempt, in that scenes lasted for a long time. In Contempt about 45 minutes of the middle of the movie is one scene in a house, with two people talking. Closer obviously was influenced by that movie, and that's a good thing.

All four of the lead actors (in fact, basically the only four actors) are amazing-more than I thought possible for any of them. Roberts (known in the film community as "that person who stole Ellen Burstyn's Oscar in 2000") does a surprisingly good job-she seems to not have any ego here (now THAT is surprising), and that allows her to put in a realistic performance as one of those pretentious art-gallery types. Owen, who had been Dan in the original stage production, seemed to know what do to the most, and for that, was probably the best out of the four, closely rivaled by Portman. Shedding her goody-goody roles of the past, she plays a stripper who becomes entangled with everyone else. Garden State proved her acting talents, and Closer confirmed them. Law also proved that his six-films-a-year style doesn't faze him at all-he deserves all six, if not more.

One thing I didn't like about Closer is the fact that it seemed to be rather long (reminded me of both Contempt and Solaris). It's less than 100 minutes, but seemed longer. However, the simple (yet complex) story is sustained for that runtime, making Closer a great, challenging film to watch-there's some explicitness in it that wasn't necessary, but if you can get through that, I think Closer will offer a complex night at the movies.

My rating: 8/10

Rated R for sequences of graphic sexual dialogue, nudity/sexuality and language.
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National Treasure: 7/10
3 December 2004
Dontcha just hate Jerry Bruckheimer? I mean, Pearl Harbor sucked (and I miss you), and all of his movies are basically the same. It's a bunch of explosions, some stock characters, and a cheesy romance thrown in. National Treasure is no different. Then what sets this apart from all of Bruckheimer's other movies? The movie knows its absurd, knows its implausible and ultimately stupid, meaning that it can throw any reason out the window and alloy for some silly fun to overrule the movie. I can't regard anyone who calls this movie great as someone serious, but I also can't really see how someone could wave off this movie as being too light-hearted and can't enjoy the film for being the silly stupidity that it is.

Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) descends from a long line of treasure hunters, looking for a treasure supposedly buried by the founding fathers. Generations before him have also looked, but to no avail. However, Ben, along with his wisecracking sidekicks/computer nerd Riley (Justin Bartha), find clues, while competing treasure hunter Ian (Sean Bean) follows close behind. Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger of Troy and Wicker Park fame), as some sort of historical government official, comes along for the ride.

As this is a Bruckheimer movie, I was expecting many forays into deep, dark tunnels with magical effects that almost (but don't) kill the main characters. Thankfully, that's only at the end; the majority of the movie's about stealing a priceless historical document. What could be cooler, really? If you think about it, it's completely against what we're supposed to be feeling, yet this all-American person decides to steal what's the backbone of our society for his own personal good. I mean, that's cool. The movie introduces many things that have no explanation (Benjamin Franklin's glasses, perchance?), have no reason why they could work, much like many other action/adventure movies. But, really, why care? The movie's entertaining. The action's there, the suspension of disbelief is there, and the fun's there.

I'm not a huge Nicolas Cage fan (but I don't really detest him like some do), but he's fine here. I mean, he's not a tremendous actor, but you could do worse. Bean and Kruger (both, actually, were in Troy-you could do six degrees of Troy easily) were as expected. Bean usually plays the "conniving evil British dude" in movies like these, and Kruger is at least making a mainstream name for herself. Bartha could quite possibly be the next guy who, when you see him in a movie, say "I KNOW that guy, I just don't know what else I saw him in." But, the acting's not important, what's important is that National Treasure is a fun movie. It has the stamp of Bruckheimer all over it, but don't let that fool you.

My rating: 7/10

Rated PG for action violence and some scary images.
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Christmas with the Kranks: 5/10
29 November 2004
Have you ever heard of Ben Affleck? I'm sure you have, but if I ask you the same thing next year, I'm sure you won't know who I'm talking about. It's primarily from his October release Surviving Christmas, which grossed about as much as the latest Uwe Boll movie. That flop is the reason why Christmas with the Kranks is so awkwardly titled. Instead of Skipping Christmas, like the John Grisham book on which the movie is based, the law, or MPAA (what's the difference?), or someone, made Revolution Studios change the name. Directed by Revolution bigwig Joe Roth, it's a movie that Sony thinks is necessary for post-9/11: how the spirit of Christmas can cure even the most insane of individuals. The Christmas portrayed here isn't even close to the Christmas displayed so beautifully in The Polar Express. This is the annoying "ho-ho-ho Santas on every roof" type of Christmas that everyone despises so. Therefore, it's hard to get a palpable feeling out of Kranks. But, it could have been worse. I could have been watching Surviving Christmas.

Luther and Nora Krank (Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis) have just become empty nesters in their northern American town (at least I think so-everyone seemed to have a "Minnesota Nice" accent). Their Christmas-obsessed town has not only depleted their wallets, but also, finally, their spirits. The Kranks decide to skip Christmas and take a Caribbean cruise instead. This upsets the town, especially Vic Frohmeyer (Dan Aykroyd), the so-called ringleader of the street for its annual Christmas contest. Then, about halfway through the movie, something "surprising" (i.e. shown in the trailer) happens which causes a reversal of the skipping of Christmas. Will the Kranks be able to pull it off?

Roth (having directed such other gems like America's Sweethearts and Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise) is quite possibly the worst director in the history of film-making. Not only could he find a director to do this (so he had to resort to it himself), but the way he changed focus-he must have done it a dozen time. What he did was let the focus go from one character to something else for a few second, then slip back. He tries to do it on the sly, but fails miserably. It's almost condescending to the audience, like we can't figure out what in the shot is important for us to look at. He, obviously knowing what to expect from the results, doesn't seem to really care about the movie. Instead of trying to make the movie realistic, all of the sets are obviously Hollywood backlots. I suppose that the town's supposed to be Anywhere, USA, but that doesn't mean it has to look like every other town in films.

Chris Columbus, writer of the script, is known for writing (and/or directing) overlong movies with sappy endings. Kranks satisfies one of the two, and with a 94 minute runtime, you can guess which. The Kranks are such crazy characters (as evidenced by their names, too) who go on such crazy adventures (or as crazy as they can be for PG), that they suddenly become sane because of The Christmas Spirit. It's that type of baloney Christmas sentimentality that really bugs me about many movies. But on a completely different note, the movie did have its moments (especially during its "raunchier" moments), but the thing was that it was constantly entertaining. I never felt bored, or really upset by it (until, of course, the last ten minutes or so, when it went all Hallmark on me). The movie did have a bit of satirical wit through it, although not as sharp as it could be or wanted to be. But still, it's kind of remarkable for satire in a PG movie.

Both Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis annoy me. Allen did annoy me here in Kranks, but for some reason, I really liked Curtis's over-the-top performance. After her fluke success in 2003's Freaky Friday, I suppose she isn't really struggling for work (unlike Allen), and can have more fun with these kinds of roles. Aykroyd (when's the last time he's had a 'real' role?) does what he needs to do, but, seriously, get this guy better roles! He's better than this! The movie could also do better than it did, but it's a diverting diversion, nothing more.

My rating: 5/10

Rated PG for brief language and suggestive content.
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The Polar Express: 8/10
27 November 2004
I don't understand why studios (especially WB) continue to spend massive amounts of money on certain movies. I would think that from Troy (which cost over $200 million to make, got about $150 million domestically and somehow recouped its losses overseas), they would know better than to invest a whole lot of money into one particular movie. But the lesson was not learned for The Polar Express. Using motion-capture animation (how they did Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies-or, even simpler, the animation Homer Simpsons invests a lot of money in), Robert Zemeckis (who last revolutionized animation with Who Framed Roger Rabbit) creates a dazzling world from Unnamed Suburbia to the North Pole. After hearing what the 3-D IMAX experience was like, I would have liked to have seen it there, but I saw it on a measly movie theater screen. Still, I loved it nonetheless.

Tom Hanks, being the versatile man he is, does the voice and motion capture for about five characters: the boy (whose voice is mixed with Daryl Sabara's, from Spy Kids), the conductor, the hobo, the father, and Santa Claus. The boy, doubtful about Santa's existence, hears the whistle of a train right by his house on Christmas Eve. He steps aboard to see a bunch of other kids en route to the North Pole via The Polar Express. Along the way, magical things occur as the boy (trying to believe in Santa all the way) figures out the truth (secular truth, that is) behind Christmas.

Surprisingly, being the cynic that I am, I loved The Polar Express. I think it was the simplicity-the book by Chris Van Allsburg is simple, and, although the movie is made out to feature length, it too is simple. The story's easy to follow, and that lets you get caught up in the visuals, which are astounding. All of the animation is astounding-not only is it lifelike, but it's also surreal. Some sequences (such as the "lost ticket" sequence) are so, for lack of a better word, gratifying. I'm not sure if it's only me, but when I was watching The Polar Express, I felt like this was almost the culmination of animation. It seemed like we worked for 100 years to get up to the quality of The Polar Express. While that obviously isn't so, it sure seemed like it, which is quite a plus for the movie. For a movie to make me believe that this is the best quality possible is pretty spectacular.

What's even more spectacular is that the movie made an old Scrooge like myself into some little kid mystified by the Christmas spirit. Sure, it's a month too early, but still.... The ability to take most people from nine-to-fivers to five-year-olds gawking at the idea of Santa is probably the most stunning transformation a movie can do to the audience. And The Polar Express does it perfectly. It's more than the "another year, another advance in animation" movie. It's a huge achievement in film, and I speak that with no hyperbole. Not only is it the animators, but also Robert Zemeckis who make the movie what it is. Imagine the long hours that Zemeckis, basically overseeing the whole project, would have to work. I'm not trying to demean the animators here, as this was obviously a huge group effort, but if Peter Jackson can win a best director Oscar for making a nine hour movie, can't Zemeckis win one for making a movie of this magnitude?

Unfortunately, having Hanks play four and a half characters means that four and a half characters sound exactly alike. It kind of takes away from the whole feel of the movie, when Santa, the conductor, his father, et al. sound exactly the same. Also, I think some of the situations were a bit childish (like the back-and-forth with the engineer, etc.), but still, that can't really diminish the awesome power the movie has. It's truly an amazing feat for everyone involved, and the fact that it probably won't get its money back is basically a sin.

My rating: 8/10

Rated G.
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The Motorcycle Diaries: 7/10
26 November 2004
Che Guevara has become a teenage fad of sorts. I don't know why, or how, but he is. It's sad, too, because I can safely say that the majority of the teenage population does not know why Guevara was important. But that's not the story here in The Motorcycle Diaries. That's the story of Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his friend Alberto (Rodrigo De la Serna) taking a road trip through South America on a ratty old motorcycle. Throughout their journey, they run out of money and their motorcycle breaks down many times, causing them to lie about who they are (saying that they're doctors) so they have places to stay. Throughout the way, they notice the injustices brought upon some of the people there.

Che Guevara, being the leader of the Cuban revolution, needed to have some sort of provocation for his revolution. The movie provides the evidence (based on his own diaries), and it's fascinating at first. Seeing how everything changes Guevara's mind is very thought-provoking...for the first few times it's shown. After about something like 45 minutes into the movie, we get the point of what the movie's trying to say. We get that everything Guevara sees changes him, and we need something more in it. But nothing more is given, and what we have left to look at is the magnificent scenery.

Bernal and de la Serna are both very good, but can that make up for the lack of a real sustaining plot worthy of two hours? Now, that's not to say that The Motorcycle Diaries is bad, in fact, it's pretty entertaining. When watched with half an eye, it could even be considered great. But all that's in my head now is the non-variety in the plot, the music, and how short this review is.

My rating: 7/10

Rated R for language.
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Sideways (2004)
Sideways: 9/10
24 November 2004
Alexander Payne has proved himself to be able to direct a variety of films in the same genre. Election was a satire made to look like a teen comedy, About Schmidt was an old-person-comes-to-terms movie, and Sideways is a mid-life crisis movie. All three are similar in theme, but especially Schmidt and Sideways. They're almost the same movie, with an age difference of about 20 years. Both juggle comedy and drama effectively, but Sideways is funnier, sadder, and hit closer to home than Schmidt did for me.

Miles (Paul Giamatti) takes his friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) off on a week-long road trip right before Jack's marriage to Christine (Alysia Reiner). Miles is a high school English teacher and a struggling writer who's still depressed about his divorce two years earlier. Jack is a formerly famous actor reduced to doing voice overs in car commercials. They travel north in California, into wine country, as Miles is a pretentious wine enthusiast. They meet Maya (Virginia Madsen) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh) up there, and respectively, Miles and Jack try to hit it off with them. Jack is more successful, which puts his marriage in jeopardy. They look at their lives while up there, as it puts the audience in various stages of laughter and tears.

Sideways is obviously more personal to 43-year-old Payne than Schmidt or Election, and it shows. It bares the honest truth about humanity. Although Miles and Jack seem like completely total opposites, they're both the same on the inside-they're both Everymen. Payne deals with this in not only a mature manner, but also with a sympathetic eye. He doesn't allow Miles to become an down-and-out loser (like, say, Philip Seymour Hoffman in every movie he's in), nor does he allow Jack to be this total soul-less tail-chaser. The characters are unrealistic enough to have us believe that something like the movie could happen, but also grounded in reality. When movies try to have this down-to-earth "realism", they often fail. But since Sideways had characters who weren't like us (but we were able to relate to them), it made the movie easier to enjoy and like.

It also helps that the movie is pretty damn funny. Due to Miles's pretentiousness re: wine, the movie mocks people like that, but also shows the "different strokes for different folks" approach-what Miles likes is different from what Jack likes, and neither can grasp that concept, leading into some very funny dialogue. I noticed that the audience laughed at times when the movie wasn't funny. Why that is, I don't know, but the movie is funny anyway. And something that I'm sure surprised much of the audience is the sex between two people who you normally wouldn't see having sex on films. I suppose it's like the "shock" of Kathy Bates in Schmidt, but I suppose it's almost brave of Payne to show these things on film, stuff that no one else would.

Giamatti is simply spectacular in his trademark role of a schlub (see also: American Splendor). He expresses his emotions like a pro. Church is also pretty good, but I think the standout is Oh. She got the part from being married to Payne, but she does a breakout job here, and it seems like she has a lot of opportunities now to become a star along the ranks of Giamatti (Splendor really shot Giamatti up). All in all, Sideways is a great film-something for everyone. The soundtrack, too, is pretty great, one worth buying. I'd recommend it to anyone, really. For those who liked Schmidt, especially, it's a movie for them.

My rating: 9/10

Rated R for language, some strong sexual content and nudity.
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The Incredibles: 8/10
19 November 2004
Being part of that very elite club that didn't think that much of Finding Nemo, I didn't really know what to expect from The Incredibles, another computer generated film by Disney/Pixar. I had heard amazing things about it, but I had also heard amazing things about Nemo. The standard opening short, "Boundin'", made me doubt how good the actual film would be. But now I see that there's an inverse. Nemo's opening short was the hilarious "Knick Knack," and the movie just turned out to be mediocre. Here, "Boundin'" was quite atrocious, but The Incredibles was great. How could I tell it was great from the beginning? Well, I knew that Pixar made kids films, and the opening scene had a car chase filled with guns firing at each other. I knew this was going to be a different film, and, by golly, I knew I'd love it from then on in.

Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) is a superhero, saving his fair city from supervillains. However, when he rescues someone who didn't want to be rescued, it starts a whole line of lawsuits against superheroes, so Mr. Incredible, after his marriage to Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), is forced into retirement. He's now Bob Parr, an insurance agent living with Helen and their three children, Dashiell "Dash" (Spencer Fox), Violet (Sarah Vowell), and baby Jack-Jack (Jack-Jack? I mean, seriously, JACK-JACK?). A deranged former fan of Mr. Incredible, Buddy Pine (Jason Lee), decides to destroy every former superhero in the world by becoming Syndrome, and Mr. Incredible has to decide whether or not to keep his quiet suburban life to go back into the now illegal field of superheroing.

Ever since Toy Story came out, the bar for animation has continually been set higher and higher. And since Shrek, the look of the animation hasn't changed at all. That is, until November 5, 2004, when The Incredibles was released. This being Pixar's first film only featuring human characters, and since human characters were Pixar's weakness in all of their other movies, it's corrected here. And since there's not as much cartoonery here (in relation to Nemo, etc.), everything has do, and does, look a lot more realistic. It's this leap of animation that puts Brad Bird's movie up on the charts. Bird, who did the supposedly underrated The Iron Giant and various work on The Simpsons, took on this arduous task of writing and directing this two-hour long scope CG film. I'd hate to see the man who makes a perfect movie with those qualifications, but I have to say Bird did a damn good job.

The greatest asset of The Incredibles is how the story, unlike Nemo, isn't condescending to, or even for, kids. Gunplay, suicide, violence, peril involving young children-this is the type of action movie everyone's been waiting for. The Incredibles can be enjoyed at the same level by any age group. There aren't really many gross gags, like Nemo or other Pixars. In fact, the movie worked great because it's not a comedy. It's an action movie with many funny spots in it. It's like Bird's work on The Simpsons-many of the best episodes are not only funny, but are also fun to watch (which is part of the fault of the newer episodes, but I digress). Since the movie's major focus isn't humor, it can focus on the well-developed characters, the plot, and all of the details. The movie, at two hours long, flew by.

People have said that Craig T. Nelson's voicework is unrecognizable, but to them I have this to say: if you saw him and saw him talk, would you be able to recognize him? I thought not. The animation matched his voice perfectly in all of its deadpan glory, so, I suppose in that regard he did a good job. Hunter is pretty good, but Bird, as Edna Mode, is way overrated. I don't understand these people who say that Edna should have her own sequel, but that's another story. Samuel L. Jackson, as "Frozone", is awesome, as he always is (can he be anything else?), but he's only in about two scenes. Everyone knows that he's awesome, so why make his role so small? I couldn't place Lee's voice at first, but it was basically generic voice-over work. That's the weakest part of The Incredibles, is the voice-over work. Everything else is-dare I say-incredible, that it's brought down by such mediocre voices.

My rating: 8/10

Rated PG for action violence.
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Coffee and Cigarettes: 7/10
12 November 2004
Movies almost always follow a three act structure. Any that don't are usually considered avante-garde, and fail to get a receiving audience. Art house favorite Jim Jarmusch's latest film Coffee and Cigarettes doesn't follow that three act structure, but it's not as if people would flock to it anyway. And since Coffee and Cigarettes isn't linear, neither will this review. The movie's composed of 11 short sketches, all having to do with coffee and cigarettes. No other characters besides the main ones are seen (an aspect I liked), and the movie's filmed in some ultra-cool black and white.

In "Strange to Meet You", Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright randomly meet up in a coffee shop. Steven talks about how he drinks coffee before he sleeps, and they both are on obvious addictions to the title things. Steven mentions that he doesn't want to go to his dentist appointment, something that Roberto gladly does for him. This sketch is just kind of random (as all of them are)-they seem to have agreed to meet, yet don't know each other and have no purpose for meeting. The stuff discussed here will be discussed later, and as cool as Benigni is, there's just not really much of interest in this one.

Joie Lee, Cinqué Lee, and Steve Buscemi, in "Twins", are all great. Lee and Lee, twins, drink their coffee and chatterbox waiter Buscemi comes up to talk to them about how Elvis isn't actually dead-it's his twin. It's funny, it's entertaining, and it has Steve Buscemi in it. The Lees are also quite good for people I had never heard of. I think the key to this one was the coordination of the three of them, and it worked perfectly. One of my favorites from Coffee and Cigarettes.

Tom Waits and Iggy Pop talk about smoking, IHOP and Taco Bell, and various other things in "Somewhere in California". Some of the dialogue sounds almost like something Larry David would say ("Do I look like a Taco Bell kind of guy?"), and it's also quite funny. The last line is a great line, and the battling egos are fun to watch. It's probably the one with the least substance in it, but I liked it nonetheless.

"Those Things'll Kill Ya"-Joe Rigano and Vinny Vella talk about the addiction of cigarettes, when Vinny, Jr. comes in and asks for money. It's not interesting, is filled with no-names, and has no real purpose of existing. It's not witty, it's not observant, it's just there. It's like some other of the middle sketches-it's just bland, no distinctive characteristics to them.

In "Reneé", Renee French is a tomboyish kind of woman, reading about gun racks and such. She also is a perfectionist, and when the waiter (E.J. Rodriguez) pours her more coffee, she becomes belligerent. See comments about "Those Things'll Kill Ya".

Alex (Alex Descas) and Isaach (Isaach De Bankolé) meet in a restaurant after Alex calls Isaach. Isaach thinks something's wrong with Alex, but really Alex just wants to talk. Yet another of the "middle" sketches. Although you could say there's no point to the movie in general, there's especially no point in this one. Is it to show the paranoia of America? Or to outline the distrust we have in each other? Or is there just no reason for it at all?

In "Cousins", Cate Blanchett plays both a successful publicist and her estranged cousin, who meet for coffee. The rifts between the two are evident, as one is successful and one isn't. The more I think about it, the more I like it, although at the time it seems unimpressive. Everything that's said in that one is true, too, once you think about it. Might not be the most entertaining of the 11, but still a worthwhile one.

Jack and Meg White of The White Stripes talk about Tesla coils. Yawn.

Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan meet in "Cousins?", where Alfred brings up the point that they're distantly related. It's the longest out of all of them, for good reason, as it's fun to watch, and is probably second in the humor scale (next to "Delirium"). The way the tables turn at the end is a great twist, and actually shows the way of life in some Hollywood celebrities. It strays off of the topic, but it goes into interesting sidetracks. ("I love going to LA. I love leaving it even more.") The one you're probably expecting to be the best, and you may think so.

In "Delirium", the craziest out of all of them, GZA and RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan, after swearing off caffeine, meet Bill Murray (as a waiter, no less) at a cafè. They talk about how bad caffeine is, and how GZA is into alternative medicine, which culminates the skit in a morbidly hilarious way. It's easily the funniest of the 11, with all three of them being the stars. The way that GZA and RZA idolize Murray, and the complete absurdity of Murray being a waiter are comic genius. For me, the best one by far.

Lastly, in "Champagne", Bill Rice and Taylor Mead talk about imagining that their coffee is champagne. The sappiest of the 11, it's okay, but not really akin to my liking. Still, it's some people's favorite.

Overall, some of the parts of Coffee and Cigarettes are pure genius, whether hilarious or not. However, the other part of the time it just fizzles out to mediocrity. Still, I'd recommend watching at least a few of these segments, but maybe not in a row. There's no need to watch all of them.

My rating: 7/10

Rated R for language.
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Ray (I) (2004)
Ray: 10/10
2 November 2004
Ray Charles was one of those performers who always seemed joyful. Whenever he performed one of his songs, his jovial qualities seemed to pass onto you, and you felt great. Of course, on the inside, Charles was dealing with his own inner demons, as shown in Ray. Approved by Charles himself before he died, the movie shows both side of Charles-the good and the bad. The film doesn't go as far as to glamorize Charles, nor does it make him out to be some sort of beast. He's just stuck in the middle, which is the way most people are.

Ray Charles Robinson (Jamie Foxx) grows up in the poor south. He lives with his single mother (Sharon Warren) and his younger brother, who goes through a traumatic death. Ray soon becomes blind, and learns the piano. His career slowly takes off, and then zooms to popularity. Along for the ride is his wife (Kerry Washington), who goes through his heroin addiction and his womanizing on the road.

The reason why I gave Ray such a high rating, you ask? Simply because there's not one thing wrong with it. The writing, directing, acting, cinematography, music, editing-everything is perfect in the best movie of the year so far. First, the directing. Taylor Hackford, known for such movies as Dolores Claireborn and The Devil's Advocate, directs the movie in a unique style. He has flashbacks to Charles's childhood early and often, and instead of having them be disjointed and unnecessary, Hackford creates it perfectly, timing everything perfectly so it all flows together in a meaningful way. The movie, despite its long runtime, doesn't meander at all, thanks to Hackford's direction. The way each shot was created, the seeming perfectionist way it was done, leads Ray to have some of the best direction in recent years.

Written by Hackford and James L. White, it seems like the movie is based off of something that was quite detailed, that the two had to whittle down a lot of Charles's life just to get it in the two-and-a-half hour zone for a movie. Yet the movie was never, ever boring. The 150 minutes flew by quickly, and my butt wasn't even in pain. That's the sign of an involving, intimate movie. Where you can watch it for as long as it goes on, lose all sense of time, and get wrapped up in whatever's going on. And, since Hackford co-wrote the movie, he knows what he can and can't do with the script. The writing and directing really go hand in hand here.

Jamie Foxx, who, before I saw Ray, put in the best acting job of the year as Max in Collateral, puts in the best acting job of the year here. Foxx does such a good job that everyone forgot that it wasn't actually Ray Charles being himself. All of the imitations of Charles were dead-on. Foxx had to go through a grueling breakdown by Charles, and Foxx was actually blinded for most of the shoot. It's this method acting that really makes Foxx Charles. Washington, who "broke out", so to speak, in Spike Lee's She Hate Me, does a great job here, also, although her performance is a little overshadowed by Foxx's. Still, both of them are multilayered performances.

The movie as a whole is also amazing. It's the combination of Charles's music with everything mentioned here that makes Ray such a powerful movie. We see his transition from coming up from the dregs of society to become one of America's top entertainers, and his crusade for equal rights. A movie that doesn't shy from the dark side of things is a hell of a lot more inspirational than some inner-city sports movie. All in all, I'd like to say that Ray may very well be the best movie of the year, and I'd like to congratulate Jamie Foxx on his Oscar win.

My rating: 10/10

Rated PG-13 for depiction of drug addiction, sexuality and some thematic elements.
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Barton Fink (1991)
Barton Fink: 6/10
24 October 2004
I'm not sure if I can call myself a Coen brothers fan. I enjoy most of their movies, but the only one I've been blown away by is Fargo. Their comedies have some laughs in them (usually one huge one at the end, especially the more modern ones). So I guess I'm not a huge Coen aficionado. But they do make interesting films, and one of them is Barton Fink, released in 1991. Set in the early 1940s, it's symbolic, metaphoric, heavyhanded and occasionally boring. Not to mention confusing. At least John Goodman was in it.

Barton Fink (John Turturro) is a somewhat successful playwright who is offered a job in Hollywood to write a B-movie, a wrestling picture. Living in a small hotel, he becomes friends with Charlie (John Goodman), his next-door neighbor. Barton gets writer's block and falls for his mentor's girlfriend (Judy Davis). Then mysterious events occur.

Much like many movies of the early 1990s, Barton Fink isn't really exciting, it's just non-boring for the most part. There's nothing really in it that could really be considered exciting. There's some symbolism, like the wallpaper and the shot of the drain, but visually it's nothing really that new or breathtaking. Sure, there's the Hell references about the place where Barton stays, but the movie needs more than that to keep the viewer interested in its overlong two hour runtime. But like I've said, it's not boring, just non-exciting. Any movie with John Goodman in it can't be all bad, and it definitely isn't.

The look at Hollywood in its emerging years is pretty fun to look at, however, and Barton's story is interesting enough. The Coens wrote enough about each character so we could get to know them and their exploits. Granted, some of the subplots went nowhere, and some came out of nowhere (much like the Coens to do, also). The great cast, though, saves the movie. We have Turturro, Goodman, Davis, Tony Shalhoub, Steve Buscemi, typical Coen actors. Each of them put something into Barton Fink to make it just a little more eccentric. If that's possible. Barton Fink is such an odd movie, I think that I'd recommend it to die-hard Coen fans. Not even semi-fans like myself, just the people who think that The Dude is a prophet. At least John Goodman's in it.

My rating: 6/10

Rated R for language.
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