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Razor's Review Archive

a.k.a. "Razor's Rental Reviews"



28 Days Later Adaptation Alien American Beauty Apocalypse Now Redux Being John Malkovitch Better Luck Tomorrow The Blair Witch Project The Bone Collector The Bourne Identity Bowfinger Bridget Jones's Diary Bringing Down the House Bringing Out the Dead Brotherhood of the Wolf Bubba Ho-Tep Chicken Run Cowboy Bebop: The Movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Daredevil Dawn of the Dead Dungeons & Dragons Enemy At the Gates Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind The Exorcist Fight Club Final Fantasy Ghost Dog Gladiator The Grinch Hannibal Harry Potter and the Socreror's Stone Hellboy Kill Bill, Volume 1 The Last Samurai The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers Love Actually Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World The Matrix: Reloaded The Matrix: Revolutions Minority Report Mission Impossible 2 Mission to Mars The Mummy Returns The Musketeer Mystery Men O Brother, Where Art Thou? Ocean's 11 The Patriot The Perfect Storm Pitch Black Princess Mononoke The Punisher Red Dragon Reign of Fire Resident Evil Road to Perdition Rules of Engagement Shaft Space Cowboys Spider-Man Spirited Away Spy Game Star Wars Episode II - Attack of the Clones The Sum of All Fears Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines Three Kings Tomb Raider Unbreakable Vertical Limit What Planet Are You From? Windtalkers X-Men X2: X-Men United


The Punisher

     It was just last week that had cause to comment on my own weakness for movies based on comic books. I suppose it's good to know that I'm not a total sucker, and that some such films still fail to meet my loose standards. This helpful reminder comes by way of Marvel's latest big-screen adaptation, "The Punisher."
     The first word that comes to mind when I think of this movie is "gratuitous." Where the comic Punisher begins his life of vigilanteism after his wife and children are murdered by the mob, the big-screen version is spurred into action by the execution of an entire family reunion's worth of relatives. And where the ink-and-paper Punisher hunts down criminals and executes them, his cinematic counterpart traps the guilty in convoluted schemes, and explodes parking lots full of cars to finish off their bullet-riddled bodies. And if the death toll and property damage aren't enough to justify my word of choice, there's the film's failure to miss a single opportunity to show actor Thomas Jane with his shirt off.
     Now we're going to discuss the word "uneven." In this case, meaning that "The Punisher" seemed to experiment with being a lot of different kinds of movie, without ever settling on any one tone. There are scenes where a troubled Frank Castle (our titular hero's real name) sits alone, nursing a bottle of bourbon, and suggesting to the audience that they are watching a gritty, dramatic movie. Five minutes later, he is engaged in a drawn-out fistfight with a comical assassin. Light-hearted and self-aware action flick, right? Or maybe this is supposed to be a feel-good buddy movie, as evidenced by the Punisher's quirky neighbors. Unless of course it's a thriller, and the centerpiece is Castle's mysterious, carefully-laid plot. If there are any action sub-genres I've missed, chances are you'll find them here as well.
     The only thing I can say for sure about "The Punisher" with regard to its genre is that it is definitely an action movie. And the action is for the most part quite enjoyable. If I hadn't been suffering from mood swings caused by its uneven tone, I might have really liked this film. Maybe I should have just turned my brain off and watched the pretty explosions, but that just goes back to the point that I never quite figured out what kind of movie I was watching.
     Obviously, I was quite disappointed with "The Punisher." I feel like it could have been a much better movie, had it only toned things down a bit and maintained focus. But it didn't, and it wasn't. And there you have it.



Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

     If you've seen the trailers for "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," the ones that start out like another pre-movie commercial, you'll already have an idea that it must be a pretty weird film. For me, that was reason enough to give it a look. As it turned out, that made for a very good choice on my part.
     As with Charlie Kaufman's last two scripts ("Adaptation" and "Being John Malkovitch"), it's a little hard to pin down exactly what category in which to place "Eternal Sunshine." I guess it's a quirky romantic drama, with a science-fiction McGuffin. But of course, this hardly begins to describe it.
     The plot revolves around Joel and Clementine, a pair of self-imposed social exiles drawn together by their inability to relate to anyone else. When Clementine has a radical medical procedure performed, eradicating all memories of their relationship from her mind, Joel sees no option but to do the same. Much of what follows is a trip down memory lane, tracing the path of the romance through Joel's mind as each moment is relived and promptly erased. This is only the barest outline of the plot, but I already feel like I've said too much.
     From the opening act, the audience can tell that something does not quite add up, and I for one spent a great deal of time during the rest of the film figuring out how everything was going to work together. This process was part of the fun of the movie, and that's why it's hard to say very much about the plot without spoiling it. But suffice it to say that the movie represents a journey, and everything does come clear in the end.
     And the end, really, is what makes "Eternal Sunshine." Obviously I can't say anything specific, but I'll tell you what I can. As the movie approached its conclusion, there was a part of my mind devoted to trying to predict the outcome. What words would be said; what acts performed for the inevitable swell of romantic music? I'm happy to say that what played out on that screen was nothing like anything I had imagined - my brain no doubt mired in the refuse of so many romantic comedies starring Sandra Bullock or Julia Roberts. This movie ended on a much different note, one that surprised me not only because of its originality, but because of its truth, and because it was so much more honestly romantic than what I was expecting.
     That last sentence was really the note on which I wanted to end this review, but I would be remiss if I failed to include the bad with the good. Fortunately, I have only a minor complaint to level against "Eternal Sunshine." A great deal of the movie takes place within Joel's mind, at the junction of his fading memory and his active imagination. These scenes take advantage of the mix to relate both character background and plot progression. And though the purposeful blurring of the line between memory and imagination proves to be a very effective storytelling tool, it is also one that leads to confusion. In short, there were several times during the film that I suddenly realized I was no longer watching a flashback, but instead watching characters talk about the flashback, which in turn forced me to replay the on-screen events in my head to figure out what the message was supposed to be. I don't have any specific suggestions for how this problem could have been fixed, so all I can do is warn potential viewers to watch out for these sudden shifts in storytelling.
     There's a lot more to "Eternal Sunshine" than I've let on. But the combination of the fact that the movie is hard to describe to begin with, and the fact that even attempting to describe some its virtues would ruin the surprise forces me to limit my discussion. Maybe the best thing I can say about it is that it is one of those movies that gets better the more I think about it, and I already liked it a lot when I left the theatre. The concept is original, the story moving, the characters very human. It's well-written, well-acted, and well-executed. I think what I'm saying is that you should probably go see it for yourself.



Hellboy

     So we've established that I'm pretty forgiving of superhero movies - I even had some positive things to say about "Daredevil." I can only hope you won't hold this against me when I say that "Hellboy" was a very cool movie. But if you like comic books, sci-fi, or unnameable horrors (and who doesn't?), then you'll probably agree with me.
     And just what is a "Hellboy?" Without giving too much away, I can safely say that he's some kind of demon or devil, only he works for the good guys. Being a decidedly supernatural creature himself, his works unsurprisingly lean toward the paranormal. He's strong, hardy, experienced, sharp-tongued, and likes kittens and pancakes. In other words, he's got all the right ingredients to be an entertaining action hero.
     In the fashion of most superhero movies (or at least the first one in any franchise), "Hellboy" includes both an origin story and a good supervillain crisis. In this case, we skip from the origins to a point well into our hero's illustrious career, so that we can watch events unfold from the eyes of a more grounded human character, one freshly-introduced into the weird world of the titular protagonist. The plot itself aims pretty high, tying into Hellboy's origins while addressing the identity issues with which he is assumed to have struggled for his entire life. But while it's very entertaining, it ranges perhaps too widely across the map to ever fully come together.
     The thing is that the individual plot elements are all very cool. I liked the "new guy on the job" thread. The romantic subplot worked. There was a great, strained father-son relationship with our hero as the difficult son. And then there are the creepy nazi villains, famous russian mystic, and Cthuloid gods. With lots of little bits of legend and superstition, from any background you might care to mention, thrown in.
     But somehow, these elements all combine in a way that feels like something is missing. And it's not something I was able to put a finger on. Did the villains get too little screen time? Were the various plot threads too disconnected from one another? Was the climactic action sequence too short? I can't answer any of these definitively, but the fact that I raised the questions to begin with tells me that something, somewhere, is wrong.
     The good news is that this vague sense of dissatisfaction is my only real complaint about "Hellboy," apart from the inevitable few bad CGI action shots. On the balance, the enjoyment I got from the individual plot elements made up for any failure of the whole thing to gel. The characters were interesting, the action was exciting, and the visuals were just plain cool. The Lovecraftian imagery, in particular, is something you just don't see enugh of in movies.
     "Hellboy" won't stand toe-to-toe with the action greats of all time. It wasn't as shockingly good as "Spider-Man" or "X-Men." But what it was was a better-than-average action film - one that can be enjoyed whether or not you are familiar with its comic-book roots. And if seeing the movie should inspire you to seek out the comic, then all the better...



Dawn of the Dead

     I think it's only appropriate that I bring my movie reviews back from the dead with a good old-fashioned zombie flick. "Dawn of the Dead" may not be an Academy Award contender, but it is a thoroughly satisfying undead romp. You should be able to pretty easily judge how you'll like it based on your opinion of "28 Days Later," since the two movies have a great deal in common.
     Let's just start things off with a quick run-down of the similarities between these two most recent zombie offerings. Both feature "fast" zombies, as opposed to the rotting shamblers that the name usually evokes. Both make use of stock footage of riots and violence from around the world to create tension or portray the zombie scourge. Both start slow, then suddenly transform into rollercoaster rides of crazy undead violence. And both create great horror-movie tension without resorting to much of the dissonance and quick cuts that provoke easy scares.
     Having said all that, "Dawn of the Dead" is certainly an inferior film compared to "28 Days Later." The characters are one-dimensional, and the only one with any sort of arc is one of the antagonistic minor roles. The plot elements are predictable. There are plot holes and editing problems. And the zombies themselves are more or less magical, lacking even the veneer of explanation that "28 Days Later" provides.
     Fortunately, this is not just any movie, where problems like these make the film unwatchable. This is a zombie movie, and therefore must be held to a completely different standard. Are the zombies more scary than silly? Yes. Is the violence both fantastic and disturbingly realistic? Yes. Are main characters attacked by zombified loved ones? Yes. Complicated survival plans that go horribly wrong? Check. Zombies killed with shotguns, chainsaws, and fire axes? Check. Check. Check. And there's even some gratuitous nudity to be had, as a bit of icing for our undead cake.
     I must naturally provide one warning to potential moviegoers. "Dawn of the Dead," in case you hadn't guessed yet, very much deserves its "R" rating. But if you can handle - or better yet if you crave - its graphic violence, language, and fleeting nudity, than you're in for a treat. And besides, it's always good to take notes on how others might react in extreme situations. You'll need to be prepared when the dead rise.



The Last Samurai

     Have I ever mentioned my weakness for historical epics? It's kind of weird, since I'm certainly no history buff, but I just like these movies. So once everyone started telling me how great "The Last Samurai" was, I really had no choice but to see it. And unsurprisingly, I loved it.
     The plot is very straightforward, and fairly evident if you've seen any of the previews. The year is 1867. Tom Cruise plays Nathan Algren, a U.S. Army captain who travels to Japan to train the imperial army in the methods of modern warfare, and help put down the rebellion of the tradition-bound samurai. After being captured in battle by the samurai, Algren gradually comes to understand, respect, and ultimately embrace their ways. You don't have to be a history major to know how this one will end - the Japan of today is a fully modern nation, noticeably lacking in samurai.
     But as you would expect from a historical film, it's the journey that's important, not the destination. And the road traveled by "The Last Samurai" is a very scenic one, if you'll excuse the metaphor. The environments, sets, props, and costumes used to recreate nineteenth-century Japan are gorgeous; so detailed and inspiring that I didn't really care to know how accurate they may have been.
     This quality extends to the movie's many action sequences, from the duels to the melees to the clashes of armies. The choreography and careful use of effects in these scenes gave them a very realistic feel. Only a very few of the maneuvers (and most of those belonging to our hero) seemed schlocky or trite, like the old impalement-by-thrown-sword. For the most part, the movie's action was a beautiful thing, and left me wondering just how they managed to pull some of it off.
     Of course there is more to "The Last Samurai" than its action. And much to my relief, it wasn't just hours of pontification about the nature of honor and the way of the warrior. Not that these subjects aren't discussed - they have to be in order for the audience to understand the characters. But instead of having the characters explain these topics to one another in great detail, the writers took a much more palatable tack. They simply showed the code of the samurai and the culture of Japan through the actions of the characters. Look carefully, and you'll see a much more subtle depiction of samurai behavior than could have ever come across through dialogue alone.
     There were really only two things that bothered me about this movie, and the first I'm willing to let slide. That being that I was not satisfied with the ending. Unfortunately, the ending I would have preferred would probably not have tested well with audiences. And since I can't say any more without giving the ending away, I'll leave it at that. Less forgiveable was the sequence in which Tom Cruise's character teaches the emperor of Japan how to be Japanese. While it was an important scene, it seemed somewhat in bad taste. For a movie that largely treated Japanese culture with an even hand, it was a bad turn to have an outsider, only recently converted to their ways, preaching to the very embodiment of Japan's spirit. Any number of minor characters might have been better in that scene, though of course that's not how movies are made.
     And aside from a few stiff moments on Cruise's part, the entire cast does an excellent job. Not to belittle the talent of the film's more prominent actors, but it's really the supporting cast that creates a rich, realistic environment. In the final act, you find yourself caring as much for the fates of these characters as the leads, even though you don't know their names.
     What more can you ask than engagement like that? This is a movie that's worth seeing, and worth seeing in the theatre. It has a grand scope, and is well-executed. The action is well above par for most recent movies, and if the plot is a bit obvious, I'll let it slide this time.
     In short: Daisuki desu yo.



Love Actually

     What do you do when your studio has ten or so love story concepts floating around, but none of them are strong enough to make a movie? You combine them all together into one big movie, of course! And while I have no idea if this is the true story behind the creation of "Love Actually," I challenge anyone to reveal a better reason for the production of such a narrative nightmare.
     Let me see if I can remember well enough to enumerate each of the individual love stories that comprise the movie. There is the cuckolded husband who falls for his Portugese-speaking maid; the Prime Minister who falls for a member of his staff; the secretary trying to seduce her married boss; the dorky guy who thinks he can find love in America; the shy porn actors; the faded rock star trying to make a comeback; the child facing his first, devastating love; the strangely-behaving best man; and the office girl who is afraid to show her feelings for her sexy coworker. Each of these plots is linked, however tenuously, to at least one other, so that if you are paying enough attention you can draw an unbroken thread between them all. Oh, and I seem to have forgotten to mention that the entire movie takes place in the five weeks leading up to Christmas, mostly in London.
     The problem with all of these plotlines is no doubt already obvious: there are simply too many of them to do any of them real justice. But then, like I said, I'm not sure any two of them could have supported a picture on their own. But with such a large number, any given plot thread must be abandoned for long periods of time while others are explored. In "Love Actually," these breaks end up being so long that I actually forgot about some of the lesser threads entirely, only to be surprised when they reappeared. Worse yet, few of the plotlines had anything new to offer, so I tended to get bored of whichever one actually was getting the current focus.
     Not that there weren't a few good moments to be had. The movie is a romantic comedy, and they managed to include at least a little of both. I particularly enjoyed the odd little story of the blossoming romance between to porn stars. I don't actually think they were supposed to be porn stars - they were probably meant to be body doubles or something - but I can't think of any mainstream film that would have justified all of the different sexual positions the two ended up in. The nativity lobster were cute, too.
     I think that the makers of "Love Actually" were going for something relatively high-minded; that they wanted to show that there are all kinds of different love in the world, and that Christmas is a magical time for all of these kinds of love. If you try hard, you can see new love, old love, familial love, young love, forbidden love, foolish love, and love of friends. And yet somehow, the message that comes out instead is "Wow, British girls sure are a bunch of whores." Which is unfortunate, since I'm pretty sure it's not what they were going for, and equally sure that it's not true. To their credit, I guess, the whole "love at Christmas" thing was made pretty obvious, but I feel like I missed a memo or something. Isn't Valentine's Day supposed to be the holiday where you make your foolish declarations of love? Maybe it's an English thing.
     The movie, as a complete package, would have been easier to handle if it could have at least decided on a single tone. Instead, the various love stories ranged from completely goofball to serious and kind of sad. Quite shockingly, not all of the stories end with romance found. Normally, this would be a breath of fresh air. Instead, it just leaves me confused as to how I'm supposed to feel about things. In fact, I'm not even completely sure that the writers themselves didn't just lose track of one of the plotlines, and forgot to tie it up along with the others at the end.
     "Love Actually" is a mess of a movie that, while I did in fact enjoy, I can't in good conscious recommend. While you might find some of the stories to be right up your alley, you'll inevitably find one or more of the others leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth. Whether it be something that's too schmaltzy, or something that's too depressing, something will definitely make you wish you hadn't tried to get your sweetheart in the mood with this one. And really, stirring speeches opposite President Billy Bob Thornton notwithstanding, who can take Hugh Grant seriously as Prime Minister?



Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

     Do you like detailed period pieces? Do you like swashbuckling manly men? Do you like plot-driven movies? If your answer to these quesions is "yes," then I can safely tell you the following about "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" - two out of three ain't bad.
     To be fair, "Master and Commander" has a compelling enough plot. It's 1805, and an English frigate, the H.M.S. Surprise, is sailing under orders to locate and stop a French vessel on its way to the Pacific. The French ship turns out to be more than the crew of the Surprise had bargained for, with an advanced design and a cunning captain. And so begins a protracted duel over thousands of miles of ocean, with the lives of hundreds of sailors in the balance.
     But the truth is, "Master and Commander" isn't really about the conflict between the Surprise and the Acheron. It's about being a window into the lives of British sailors in the early 19th century. And to that end, the movie is made up of many short sequences that cover pretty much every naval cliche you can think of. In addition to the obvious cannon fights and boarding parties, you have a Jonah, an albatross, insubordination, a flogging, storms, becalming, life and death decisions, rum, salty sea songs, and even a monkey. It's these bits, not the primary or secondary plots, that will make or break the movie for you.
     For me, they made it. I can't say how accurate the period reconstruction was, or whether it's realistic for all of these nautical catastrophes to occur over the course of a single voyage, but I know I enjoyed it. Accurate or not, the many gritty little details of life at sea are endlessly entertaining. This is a movie that I could easily watch over and over again just to catch some of the characterful bits that I know I missed the first time.
     But wait, what was that bit about "secondary plot" then? In the course of their hunt for the Acheron, Captain Jack Aubrey and the crew of the Surprise pass through the Galapagos Islands. The islands' exotic fauna fire the imagination of ship's surgeon and part-time naturalist Dr. Stephen Maturin, who spends the balance of the movie wishing for a chance to advance pre-Darwinian science. I don't really know what this plotline was doing here, since it seemed largely unconnected to any other aspect of the film. But the shots of the island sure were purty.
     And though neither the action sequences nor the special effects were the driving force behind the movie, they're at least worthy of a mention. The various scenes of naval combat were generally fast and furious. Though of course violent, they were only rarely graphic, and most of the actual deaths occurred off-screen. Quick cuts made the action scenes a bit hard to follow at times, and the dizzying cast of nearly-identical sailors did little to help. And the effects in these scenes were very practical and utilitarian - they gave a realistic impression without seeming to shout "look at me, I'm a special effect!"
     There is one final point I should mention before wrapping up. If, like me, you don't know your bosun from your midshipman, or your quarterdeck from your fo'c'sle, then you'll find a lot of "Master and Commander" mildly confusing. I spent a lot of the movie not knowing who outranked whom, or which parts of the ship were being discussed. But the thing is, I was glad that they didn't try to explain any of the confusing naval jargon. I can't imagine any way they could have done so that would not have been obvious, tedious, and condescending. So even if I didn't understand what a twelve-year-old was doing on the Surprise, or why grown men would follow his orders, I still enjoyed the ride, and maybe I'll just have to educate myself on my own time.
     If I'd been in a different mood, there's a good chance I might not have enjoyed "Master and Commander" so well. For some, the loose pacing and meandering plot will be an annoyance. But I found the whole package very satisfying, down to every last nautical detail. And they even managed to do without any kind of romantic subplot. How nice of a change of pace is that?



The Matrix: Revolutions

     "All things that have a beginning must have an end." And it's more or less with that tidbit of philosophy that the "Matrix" trilogy draws to a close. Not, of course, without a bevy of explosions, epic battles, effects shots, and vinyl pants. And a little more dime-store philosophy. And even if it couldn't possibly have had the same impact as the original, "The Matrix: Revolutions" was a step up from "Reloaded."
     But first, let's take a moment to discuss what I like to call "The Big Stupid." The Big Stupid is the underlying premise of the Matrix films, the one that you have to strenuously overlook in order to enjoy the movies. Humans blot out the sun in an effort to defeat solar-powered robots, who proceed to enslave all humans and use them as a power source. There are so many problems with this concept, I don't even know where to begin. The only reason I bring it up now is to repeat that The Big Stupid is something best ignored when watching these movies, despite the constant efforts by "Revolutions" to remind us of it. And as much as it pains me to spoil it for you, the final Matrix film does nothing to reconcile The Big Stupid. Now let's never speak of this again.
     In a similar vein, however, unresolved questions from the last movie are the biggest stumbling block for "Revolutions." I wish that I could say more without spoiling things, but I'll have to leave it at this: I came out of the theatre wholly unsatisfied with the answers (or lack thereof) to certain nagging questions. And if you were planning on seeing this one solely on your burning need for these answers, you'll be disappointed.
     But if you can ignore The Big Stupid and the few newer, littler stupids, "The Matrix: Revolutions" is a fine movie. Essentially, it has everything you would expect from the franchise. Nothing really new, but lots of the wire-fu, bullet-time, and black leather we've all come to know and love.
     Of particular note, of course, are the action scenes. With the possible exception of the final, over-the-top, apocalyptic fistfight, the action sequences are the absolute best things about the movie. We're talking killer robots, powered armor suits, ceiling-walking fetishists, speeding hovercraft, fires, explosions, and bullets, bullets, bullets! Seriously, you could probably ignore the rest of the movie, and just turn your brain off and watch the chases and fights, and feel like you'd gotten your money's worth.
     Aside from that, there's not much to say about "Revolutions" that hasn't already been said about "Reloaded." The visual styling is still very cool, Keanu Reeves still can't act, and Morpheus is still cool, even if he doesn't do very much this time around. Some of the one-shot characters were pretty fun, as well, such as the beleaguered captain of The "Hammer," the Train Man (played by everyone's favorite Gyro Captain), and the Kid (who appeared in the last movie, but actually got to do stuff this time).
     So yeah, if you've liked the series so far, you should go see "The Matrix: Revolutions." It won't be everything you hoped for, but it will be a lot of fun. And it should surprise you at least once or twice, which is generally a good thing. And come one, it's got the Gyro Captain! Some cameos are damn near worth the price of admission all on their own.



Kill Bill, Volume 1

     There was exactly one thing I didn't like about the first volume of "Kill Bill." If we can get that out of the way right off the top, I can spend the rest of my time here showering praise on the movie.
     What bothered me about "Kill Bill" was the violence. Now I have no particular problems with violence in general. Give me beheadings, amputations, and arterial spray any day of the week; it's all fine by me. So I'm not complaining about the presence of all of the above, in absurd quantities, throughout the length of the movie. What bugged me was how silly the violence was. In "Kill Bill," it's apparently not enough for a slit belly or severed limb to merely bleed. Instead, every one of the movie's many grievous wounds sprays blood like a firehose for five or ten seconds, or more. I suppose this amateurish effect was meant as some kind of artistic statement or homage to films of yore, but it made absurd comedy out of otherwise very gritty action scenes.
     With that out of the way, let's step back for a second and give you a little background. "Kill Bill" is the story of an assassin out for revenge against her former colleagues, who tried to kill her on her wedding day. It's told in Quentin Tarantino's trademark non-linear style, and plays around with a variety of stylistic elements from voice-over to monochrome to cel animation. There's martial arts, swords, guns, and did I mention the gallons of blood? Just don't expect any resolution, since this is only the first of two volumes.
     I can't really do an exhaustive review of this one, because it's not really a matter of the movie's individual elements. Yes, the music is good, the characters fun, the dialogue witty, and the action scenes thrilling. But what's important is the way the whole package comes together. And the whole package comes together very well. There's no pinning it down - I just really liked this movie.



Alien

     I wasn't even sure if I should write a review of the theatrical release of the director's cut of "Alien." After all, this is not really a new movie we're talking about, and anyone who might be reading this has had nearly fifteen years to form their own opinion. But writing reviews of movies I see is what I do, so it seems only appropriate that I spare a few words for my latest cinematic experience.
     What I'm not going to do, however, is spend a lot of time actually reviewing the movie. The simple truth is that I just love "Alien;" it's one of my favorite movies of all time. I jumped at the chance to see it on the big screen, director's cut or otherwise. But anyone with even the vaguest interest in horror or sci-fi has already seen it, and doesn't need me to give my opinion.
     Without watching them back-to-back, I can't be sure exactly what differences there are between the director's cut and the original theatrical version of "Alien." There are a few obvious additions, such as the scene in which Ripley discovers the true fate of some of her lost crewmates. But most of the changes were fairly subtle. I think that there were more shots of the alien planet, and more shots of the alien itself, and that some of the final self-destruct sequence was trimmed down. If pressed, I'd say that I preferred the original cut, but it's a difficult judgement to make.
     The important thing is this: if you loved "Alien" as much as I did, you owe it to yourself to see it in the theatre. And if you know anyone who has never seen it, do whatever it takes to drag them along. It's just not the same without someone screaming while you chuckle evilly.



Bubba Ho-Tep

     I really wanted to like "Bubba Ho-Tep." The concept had so much potential: You start with Elvis Presley and John F. Kennedy, or at least a pair of geriatrics who think that's who they are. You place them in a convalescent home in a backwater town in Texas, and you pit them against a mummy. And you let Bruce Campbell, an actor who's career was born fighting the campy undead, play Elvis. Comedy gold, right?
     Unfortunately, it became clear pretty quickly that this was not the movie I hoped it would be. The hard truth of it is that "Bubba Ho-Tep" just isn't very funny. A lot of the absurd situations made me smile, and a few of the jokes may have even drawn a slight chuckle out of me. But not once during the film did I laugh out loud.
     So maybe I'm looking at it the wrong way. Was it perhaps a more cerebral comedy, or not even a comedy at all? No. It was too absurd to be horror or drama. It was too slow to be action. And it was too base to be cerebral. So the silliness and the jokes leave only one option - a failed comedy.
     The thing is, it wasn't a total waste of my time. I enjoyed the movie, or parts of it at least. And like I said, I thought the concept was great. But it just didn't go anywhere. "Bubba Ho-Tep" wasn't a bad movie. It just wasn't a good movie. It really didn't elicit much emotion from me, of any kind. And that's too bad.
     Thank you, thankyouverymuch.



Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

     I'm hesitant to give "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" a good review. Not because it doesn't deserve it, but because this is a movie best enjoyed if you come in expecting it to be awful. That was certainly the attitude I held on arriving at the theatre, and I was most pleasantly surprised. It turns out that "T3" is a reasonably good action film, and a worthy successor to the franchise.
     The plot seems to come as no surprise - with a complete lack of regard for the ending of the last movie, the evil machine overlords of the future have sent yet another, even more advanced Terminator back in time to stop us humans from eventually overthrowing them. And like "T2," there's a big subplot about the origins of "SkyNet," the artificial intelligence that will ultimately turn on its human masters. But as it turns out, neither of these plotlines is exactly what it seems. And though you'll probably figure out what's really going on (more or less) long before the shocking on-screen revelations, it's refreshing that these kinds of twists are there at all.
     Stripped to its basics, any "Terminator" movie is a two-hour series of chase scenes, with brief pauses for catching one's breath. This third installation is no exception, and features the calibre of action we've come to expect from the franchise. The first big chase scene, in particular, is a whole lot of fun, and packed full of explosions and computer-generated mayhem. Not to mention Arnold getting swung around on the end of a crane. Most of the action in "T3" was just an extension of what was done in the previous films, and nothing really groundbreaking was done. All the same, it somehow ended up being very satisfying.
     Honestly, the biggest problems facing this movie were the legacies of goofiness and time paradoxes inherited from "T2." Thankfully, the filmmakers seem to have done their best to minimize both of these problems. Oh, sure, the silly throw-away jokes - like Arnold's requisite one-liners - are still in evidence, and they're as painful as ever, but they're few and far between. And the pace was far too fast for the audience to spend much time dwelling on any given joke.
     The "time paradox" problem is a little tougher, as any sci-fi geek worth his salt will happily tell you. The short version is that the events of "T2" should have made a sequel impossible. Moreover, the events of "T2" should have invalidated the events of both "Terminator" and "T2." But the minds behind the new movie had other ideas, and while they couldn't go back and change the ending of "T2," they did their best to work around it and explain it away. The result was far from perfect, but it was good enough to jump-start my suspension of disbelief and get me back into the plot.
     Was "T3" the best action movie of the summer? No. Was it the worst? Not by far. It was fun, exciting, had some cool effects, and some great evil robots. The end is a bit anticlimactic, but they make up for it with a great final plot twist. Just try not to ask too many questions about Arnie's explode-o-matic power cells.



The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

     With the recent spate of comic book-inspired movies, I suppose it's no surprise that even some of the more obscure titles are making their way to the big screen. And "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" - a graphic novel about a super-group composed of heroes from 19th century pulp fiction - certainly qualifies as obscure. Existing fans of the comic will probably form the core audience for this movie, but this is one case where I don't know enough about the source material to tell whether these fans will enjoy the results or not. Non-fans, pleasantly bereft of expectations, should be prepared for a fairly average, popcorn- munching summer action flick.
     In movie form, the titular league consists of famed explorer Allan Quatermain, the Invisible Man, Captain Nemo, Dr. Jekyll (and his nasty alter-ego), the long-lived Dorian Gray, the vampiric Minna Harker, and an American secret service agent named Sawyer. I'm going to pretend that the credits didn't list the latter character's first name as "Tom," given the disparity that would create between the movie's 1899 setting and said character's apparent twenty-something age. Appropriately aged or not, these seven illustrious personages are gathered by the vaguely-named "M" to save England, and the planet, from being plunged into a premature world war by the instigation of the villainous "Fantom." And though the plot had its share of baffling action movie clichés, like the villain who unnecessarily explains his plans or the killer who stops to make a witty comment to his otherwise surprised victim, the it also had some satisfying twists.
     I had my usual share of nitpicks with "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," but there was only one major disappointment. The special effects, of which there were a great many, were a considerable let- down given what we've come to expect from modern movies. It comes down to this: if you can't do justice to an exploding house, you're doing something wrong. Which is not to say that all of the effects were bad in this movie, but the few stinkers made a very large impression.
     Otherwise, the abundant action scenes were very entertaining. The mix of supernatural, steampunk, and good old-fashioned brawling worked surprisingly well. And as sad as I am to have to say this, I was most pleased by the noticeable lack of bullet-time or wire-fu. Which is not to say that most of the fight scenes weren't over- the-top, but they were so in a much more palatable fashion.
     "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" won't win any awards. Not even from MTV. But if you want to put your brain on cruise control for a bit and just enjoy some action, then this one will fit the bill. It's certainly better than the last couple of times Hollywood tried to put Allan Quatermain in a movie.



28 Days Later

     Ah, zombies. Those shambling, rotting, brain-hungry hordes of the undead. There's just nothing like a good old fashioned zombie movie. And though "28 Days Later" contains no actual references to zombies, the undead, or "BRAAAAAINS," there's still no mistaking it for anything but a zombie flick - survival horror in the vein of the original "Night of the Living Dead."
     The movie opens with no preamble whatsoever. The first thing to appear on screen is a series of archival sequences of human violence. A short, intense sequence follows in which we see how "the Infection" begins. But the real story starts 28 days later. Our protagonist, the as-yet-unnamed Jim, wakes up in a London hospital to find himself completely alone. His ensuing search for other people yields a series of increasingly ominous portents, until he finally comes face-to-face with his first Infected. And having slowly ratcheted up to the top of the rise, that's when the rollercoaster starts getting exciting.
     Like any good zombie movie (and I do mean "good"), "28 Days Later" is less about fighting off hordes of bloodthirsty corpses and more about the reactions of the survivors to their conditions. In fact, the human characters soend a surprisingly small amount of screen time engaged with the Infected. Most of their time, and all of their biggest conflicts, revolve around purely human matters, albeit with an unusual backdrop. More importantly, the characters are very interesting and their interactions well done, so you'll not find yourself wishing for the next zombie attack during even the slowest lulls in action.
     Of course "lull" is something of a misleading word. The overriding sense of tension in "28 Days Later" never truly subsides. The music, acting, and unusual camera angles all contribute to an edge-of-your- seat anxiety, where the audience is expecting the next attack at any moment. And with every moment that the inevitable is postponed, the tension just builds and builds. It's a great feeling, and the payoff is sweet. If you're the kind who can get scared at the movies, this one will definitely do the trick.
     I know things like pacing and camera angles aren't normally part of my reviews. But that's because there's normally not a whole lot to talk about in those areas. But "28 Days Later" really made me sit up and take notice. I can't exactly describe the filming techniques used here, but I can say that they were very effective. The combinations of quick cuts, varying film quality, and near-constant darkness could have produced a movie that was unwatchable. Instead, those and other neat little tricks sucked the audience right in and held them tight.
     Such was my high opinion of this movie that I'm going to forgo the part of my review where I air my grievances. I had exactly two complaints about "28 Days Later," but I'm going to skip them and just wrap this review up. As usual, your mileage may vary, and I should stress that this movie earns every bit of its "R" rating. Within the first five minutes we see characters vomiting blood on each other, and moments later we're treated to scenes of male nudity. So don't take your kids, and don't take yourself if you're squeamish. Otherwise, I can only recommend the movie. Even if you don't share my unseemly passion for all things undead, you should find a lot to like here.



The Matrix: Reloaded

     I've been hearing a lot of conflicting reviews out there, so let me get right to the point: I liked "The Matrix: Reloaded." I was not, however, blown away - as I should have been by a worthy successor to "The Matrix." Where the first one gave us effects and action like we'd never seen before, this one just provided more of the same, and seemed to try to make up for its lack of improvement in quality by a large increase in quantity. The result is a fun movie, but by no means a great one.
     The biggest departure in style from the original is the rather large amount of semi-philosophical dialogue found in "Reloaded." Whereas "The Matrix" featured little more than the necessary amount of exposition, its sequel is rife with very long, very talky scenes that don't really amount to a whole lot. Mind you, I normally have a lot of patience for this sort of thing, but in this case it was just too much, and I found my mind wandering as the characters droned on about cause-and-effect, or whatever. I'm sure that some of these sequences could have been cut short or removed without adversely affecting the movie.
     Because what we came to see was the action. In this respect, "Reloaded" is just like its predecessor, only more so. More action scenes, more wire-fu, more trick camera moves, more bullet-time, and a whole lot more Agent Smith. The overwhelming quantity of action, however, doesn't come anywhere near to duplicating the thrill of seeing it all for the first time. In fact, I started to get a little tired of the sudden transitions to slow-mo during the fights. But there were enough cool effects thrown in to keep me interested, so the stuff that got over-used didn't spoil my enjoyment of the rest.
     And what about the effects? They're very good, but nothing special. The first few shots of Zion, in particular, were great looking, both due the design and the execution of the effects. But there was nothing I hadn't come to expect by the time I stepped into the theatre. Still, I had no actual complaints about the effects, aside from their failure to wow me, so the net result was positive.
     Surprisingly, I found that the best part of this "Matrix" sequel was its story. If you're even considering watching this movie, then you've already learned to either accept or overlook the goofy premise behind the original. And while the plot this time around certainly has its problems, I thought it was a lot of fun. Suffice to say that there are some totally unexpected twists - things that seemed weird are explained, and things we thought we knew are turned around. Now I just hope they explain the weird stuff from this movie in the next one.
     Speaking of which, here's a final note for you. If you're going to see "Reloaded" in the theatre, make sure to wait until the very end of the credits. Yes, they're nearly as long as the movie itself, but the payoff is a teaser for "The Matrix: Revolutions."
     So what can I say? I liked the movie, and I think that most people who liked the original will too. Just don't go in expecting the same feeling you got from the original. The action's good, the effects are good, and even the plot is good. Heck, I think Keanu might even be getting better. But there's just nothing superlative about "Reloaded," so be prepared.



X2: X-Men United

     By the time I finish writing this review, I imagine that most of my readers will already have seen "X2: X-Men United." And those who haven't are likely those who won't know matter how highly I speak of it. But the short version is this: if you liked "X-Men" then you'll like the sequel.
     I'm hesitant to say that "X2" is superior to its predecessor. I certainly wasn't as blown away as I recall being by "X-Men," but then I think this is the same phenomenon I experienced with "The Two Towers," in that my expectations were just a whole lot higher this time around. On the other hand, there were several notable ways in which this movie improved upon the first. The biggest of these is that the plot, while still very "comic-booky" and even more apocalyptic than last time, seemed to me at least to be a lot less goofy. And while my review of "X-Men" included a little sniping at the acting talents of Halle Berry and Rebecca Romijn Stamos, both actresses seem to have found their roles this time around, and turned in fine performances. I didn't even notice Anna Paquin's wandering accent this time (although I'm not now sure whether this was because she did a better job or a worse one).
     I won't go into the many, many ways in which "X2" continues to diverge from its comic book roots. By now, existing fans of the X-Men will have already decided either to accept or reject Brian Singer's re-imagining of the title. But like last time, there are numerous elements thrown in purely for the sake of the fans, primarily in the form of subtle references and not-so-subtle cameos by various well-known mutants. Now not every fan can be made happy by a movie like this, as many character have to be left out and many others are necessarily altered (I myself would have liked to see Kitty and Colossus get more than their 20 seconds of combined screen time), but I will provide this warning: if you're a fan of Lady Deathstrike, prepare to be disappointed. While she looks cool and fights well, her movie incarnation is nothing more than a female Wolverine, minus any character background or development.
     There's a whole lot going on in this movie, and I can only lay out the most basic elements of the plot without giving away some surprises. While "X-Men" was primarily concerned with the battle between Xavier's X-Men and Magneto's evil mutants, "X2" brings in a third party opposed to both groups. After an apparent assassination attempt on the President by a mutant, one William Stryker gets permission to "detain" the suspected mutants at Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters. Stryker instead mounts a full-blown assault, which we soon see is only part of a much deeper plan. Meanwhile, there are several subplots of varying relevance, including Wolverine's continuing search for his past, Magneto's inevitable prison-break, the character arc of the new mutant Nightcrawler, the character arc of the new mutant Pyro, and Jean Grey's mysterious power surges. It can actually get a little hard to follow each of the individual story arcs as they continually cut from one to another, but I found that as a whole it managed to stay this side of muddled.
     On to the effects. Things were pretty much what we've come to expect in this department, which is to say flashy and nearly seamless. It's hard to use the word "realistic" when dealing with optic laser blasts or telekinetic shields, but effects like these were certainly pulled off in a very believable fashion. And then there are those effects that have become commonplace, and are clearly pretty inexpensive to produce. The "morph" effect, for instance, that was so spectacular back when "T2" hit the screen is now almost literally child's play, and the "X2" sfx crew can throw it about right and left during Mystique's scenes. Likewise, the more recent phenomenon of wire-acrobatics gets a workout in the movie, and eventually it gets kind of annoying to watch every extra who gets punched or kicked fly half-way across the room.
     But as usual, if my gripes are petty than it means I liked the movie, and had trouble finding flaws to point out. "X2" is action-packed, twisty, and just generally fun. The characters have depth that belies their comic book roots (most of them, anyway), and the fight scenes never fail to impress. And if you are a fan of the comic, you'll get to walk out of the movie with a smug smile on your face. Because you know there's going to be a sequel. And you already know what it's going to be about.



Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

     Well I wish that I could start this review in the same way that I started this one. But I did not leave "The Two Towers" with quite the same feeling of jaw-dropping awe. This is probably because the last movie so greatly surpassed my expectations, and set such a high bar for the sequel, that I came out feeling a bit let down when this year's film merely met, rather than exceeding, my expectations. Having said that, I should also say this feeling is something I encourage you to ignore, because the latest installment of the trilogy is every bit as good as the last.
     You should all remember how the last one ended: Frodo and Sam snuck away from the fellowship to make the trip to Mordor on their own. Pippin and Merry were captured by orcs, and the remaining three companions (Gandalf having fallen in combat with the demonic Balrog) set out to rescue them. You'd better remember, because "The Two Towers" picks up almost immediately where the last left off, with only a brief flashback to Gandalf's epic, final fight. From there, and in contrast to the narrative style of the first movie, we follow the three separate storylines of these groups of travelers, switching between them in what is no doubt meant to be the appropriate chronological order.
     It's now been over a year since I last read the second volume of "The Lord of the Rings," and many of the specifics have grown foggy in my mind. This is largely a good thing, because it was readily obvious that the movie version of "The Two Towers" differs far more from its literary roots than did the previous installment in the series. And while there were a couple of events and characters that I did specifically miss, none of the changes came across as earth-shattering. For the most part, the changes were for the good. None of the added scenes had the tacked-on feel of the hated "bridge-jumping" scene from the last film, but instead felt like they really belonged in the movie. I do have some questions about the choices made in the development of Aragorn and Arwen's romance (which was almost totally ignored in the corresponding volume of the book), but I'll have to wait until the next movie to see where the filmmakers are going with it. And it would have just plain sucked to have one of the climactic battle-scenes to simply be talked about, as it was in the book, rather than shown in all of its effects-laden glory.
     And what about those effects? Well, I'm putting my usual complaints about CGI on hold this time, and that in itself should tell you something. There were only a few wide shots in which the CG nature of the subjects was obvious, and these were generally so action-packed as to distract me from the problem. The rest of the SFX, computer-generated or not, were simply excellent.
     As a specific example, let's take Gollum, the CGI character of whom we only got the most fleeting glimpses in the last movie. Now there were lots of other wholly- CG characters in "The Two Towers," including winged Nazgul, trolls, the Balrog, oliphants, and ents; and all of them looked entirely realistic; but Gollum takes the cake. Despite being, as far as I know, 100% computer-generated, Gollum looked as real as any of the actors on screen. And while I have no doubt that this realism was enhanced by excellent efforts from the other actors, prop guys, sound guys, and "regular" effects guys (to pull off things like Gollum's digital hand pulling at Frodo's shirt), I have to praise the minds behind the CGI for not betraying all of those efforts with bad graphics. Instead, they made Gollum into a fully-realized character, cabaple of the full range of human emotions (even if he spends most of his time alternating between simpering cowardice and naked hatred).
     But don't think I'm done talking about Gollum yet. There's still the other side of the coin to consider, that being everything other than the pixels. All of the realistic CGI in the world would have done little good without the writing and acting to back it up. And for his part, voice actor Andy Serkis captures Gollum's pitiful whining and hate-fueled mutterings perfectly. Again, I don't know how true Gollum's dialogue (often monologue, actually) was to the book, but I know that I got the same feeling from hearing it in the theatre as I did reading it at home. There are even a couple of scenes that are extremely reminiscent of the Green Goblin's chilling "mirror dialogue" in Spider-Man, though they are far too appropriate to assume any intellectual theft on the part of "The Two Towers." What it all comes down to is that Gollum is handled so well that he really steals the show from Frodo and Sam, our would- be protagonists.
     As you may or may not remember, characterization was probably my biggest complaint about "The Fellowship of the Ring." I felt that some of the characters just did not receive the amount of development they deserved, although it was somewhat understandable under the circumstances. I'm sad to say that this is again a noticeable problem. Although Frodo and Sam get plenty of screen time, there isn't a whole lot for them to do other than trudge through various kinds of wasteland. We do see a little more of Sam's underlying strength, and are made keenly aware of the burden from which Frodo is suffering, but most of their time is spent being upstaged by Gollum. And if at all possible, Merry and Pippin are even more indistinguishable in this movie than the last Although again, this was just as much a problem in the book). On the other hand, their reduced roles mean less hobbit-derived comic relief, which places that particularly obnoxious burden on Gimli. If I complained that his role was "too jokey" last time, than this time it is considerably more so. Not that I didn't laugh at some of the humor, but it seemed a disservice to the character. Individually, Gimli and Legolas continue to get the short end of the stick in terms of character depth. The good news is that the relationship between the two characters does get some of the attention it deserves. What started in the last movie as suspicion and near-hostility has evolved into friendly rivalry, which is thankfully preserved from the book in the form of their competetive kill-count during the battle of Helm's Deep. And as mentioned before, Aragorn has some unexpected character development in relation to his romantic affiliations. Viggo Mortenson still isn't impressing me the way Sean Bean did last time as Boromir, but Aragorn does come off a little less flat this time.
     As for the more minor characters, things were pretty hit-or-miss. Given the short amount of time available, I felt that Théoden, King of Rohan, Gríma Wormtounge, and Treebeard were all presented as fairly interesting, complex characters. Others, like Haldir and especially Faramir, had insufficient screen-time and didn't make much use of what they had.
     "The Two Towers" is about a lot of different things, all circumsbribed by the contest between good and evil, and one of those things is war. While "The Fellowship of the Ring" had lots of fighting, nothing came close to the epic scale of things this time around. There are two major battles in this movie, each very different in nature. And while I'm loathe to say good things about war, I can't help but tell you how totally cool these battles were in the movie. The filmmakers somehow managed to capture all of the contrasting sides of war (at least those evident to someone who has thankfully never been in a war), from gritty and ugly and full of despair to brave and glorious and full of hope. We see tactical genius and shameless brutality on both sides of the battlefield. We see children and old men forced to take up arms, and while we are spared witness of their fates in combat, we notice that their faces are not to be found amongst the survivors. It's not "Saving Private Ryan," but it's pretty heavy stuff at times. But it's really neat to watch.
     I could probably go on and on like this, but I'll stop before my review goes as long as the movie itself. At three hours long, don't expect every minute of "The Two Towers" to be as cool as I may have made it sound. But it's a great movie, and the time does not feel wasted.



Better Luck Tomorrow

     I'm glad I made it out to see "Better Luck Tomorrow" while it was actually in theatres. With the impending arrival of a slew of summer blockbusters, I thought I might let this one get away until it showed up on the "Sundance Channel" a year or so from now. But I saw it, and I liked it, and I recommend it.
     The movie centers around Ben, an asian-american high school student on the track of scholastic success. He and his friends have their futures entirely planned out, and know exactly what to do to secure those futures. But for Ben, the formula of academic achievement and extra-curricular involvement that will ensure his admittance to the best colleges is just a little too easy, and he finds himself looking for challenges in the form of illegal endeavors.
     What starts as a few incidents of theft eventually snowballs into more and more serious crimes, until Ben, his friend Virgil, Virgil's cousin Han, and over-achieveing senior Daric constitute a full-blown crime ring. The progression sounds a bit hard to believe when described, but it is handled very well in "Better Luck Tomorrow." Believable or not, the plot was too engaging for me to question while still within the theatre.
     There were quite a few cool things going on in "Better Luck Tomorrow," and it's a shame that few of them were developed to any reasonable extent. The character Virgil, for instance, was easy to dismiss as goofy comic relief. But there was considerable depth to Virgil, most of which was barely hinted at. He was certainly more conflicted than Ben, and his relationship with Han only began to reveal its depths at the very end of the film. So although I enjoyed the movie, I felt that there was a lot of untapped potential that could have made it much better.
     The movie's ending is a particular sticking point. Many issues are left unresolved, and it is made clear that this is the way it should be, as Ben reflects that for the first time in his life he doesn't know what's coming next. But I felt cheated out of a proper ending. And it's not that concept of an open-ended conclusion that bothers me, it's how it was handled in this particluar instance. An unresolved ending would make a perfect contrast to Ben's meticulously planned life, if that had been a major theme of the film. But Ben's final words are the first that the audience hears about Ben's mapped-out future. In fact, dialogue much earlier in the movie indicated that Ben was less certain of his future than we might otherwise have assumed him to be. As a result, "Better Luck Tomorrow" feels unfinished, rather than having an ending that presents a refreshing departure from the Hollywood norm.
     Having aired my grievances, I'll repeat again that I liked "Better Luck Tomorrow." It wasn't a great movie, but it was a good movie. And even though I don't remember drunken orgies during Academic Decathalon practice at my high school, there were some elements that I could relate to. So if you ever volunteered to pick up trash at a beach just to have something to put on your college applications, I think this is a movie for you.



Cowboy Bebop: The Movie

     I hate reviewing a movie that I really liked, but don't think anyone else will want to see. "Cowboy Bebop: The Movie" was a good movie, but it was definitely made for the fans of the "Cowboy Bebop" television series. And since I'm pretty sure most of my regular readers don't stay up light to watch Cartoon Network, there probably aren't too many existing "Bebop" fans amongst you. But hey, the last anime I reviewed just won an Academy Award, and has returned to theatres with lucrative results. So you never know what might catch someone's fancy.
     From my biased perspective, that of an established fan, "Cowboy Bebop: The Movie" seemed to make a good effort at bringing the uninitiated up to speed. Our heroes are down-on-their-luck "cowboys," futuristic slang for bounty-hunters. Their spaceship is the "Bebop." And while the movie doesn't spend time explaining who the characters are or how they came to join the Bebop crew (thus saving existing fans the repetition), it introduces each with enough characterization for newcomers to pigeonhole them. Spike Spiegel is the impulsive and dangerous leading man. Jet Black is the heart of the Bebop crew, and has a more cautious and philosophical outlook than his fellow cowboys. Faye Valentine is a sarcastic, highly independent gambler. "Radical" Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tevrusky 4th is a goofy hacker. And Ein is a suspiciously smart dog.
     The story kicks off when Faye is the only surviving witness to a bio-terrorism incident, and thus the only person with a lead on what soon becomes the biggest bounty of all time. Once there's money to be made, the Bebop crew springs into action, each going his or her own way to find the bounty-head (well, Ed and Ein work as a team, at least). As is usual for "Cowboy Bebop" plotlines, the search soon reveals a whole iceberg of trouble beneath the tip that is the bounty-head. And fans of the show already know one thing: no matter what happens, this adventure won't end with the Bebop crew bringing home the cash.
     What makes this a must-see for existing fans is that it is basically just a quadruple-length episode of the series, but with even better animation. All of the hallmarks of a fun episode are there. Each of the charactes gets a chance to strut their stuff, and there is even some character development beyond that previously seen on TV, particularly with regard to Spike and Jet. We get to see all of the signature spacecraft of "Cowboy Bebop," including an intense fighting chase involving Spike and his Swordfish. And even the ubiquitous background characters from the series make it to the big screen, including the cast of "Big Shot" and the three "space geezers," who get to lend a hand to the Bebop crew this time around. The only disappointed fans will be those expecting a continuation of the series, rather than a side-story, and they should have known better anyway.
     Fans and newcomers alike will certainly enjoy the soundtrack, if nothing else. While I was disappointed not to hear the opening and closing themes of the "Cowboy Bebop" TV series, "Tank!" and "The Real Folk Blues," what replaced it was a set of new songs and scores that were lively and characterful, and set the tone for the movie perfectly.
     I have a grand total of one complaint about "Cowby Bebop: The Movie." The pacing seemed a bit off. About three-quarters of the way through the film it reaches a climactic action sequence, which is followed by a long lull. For a while I was sure that we'd reached the end, and this was just an excessively long wrap-up. The slower sequence turned out to be merely transitional, and provided a chance for some character insights that I'm sure fans will appreciate. But for newcomers especially, the long break in the action just throws off the mood, and I can't help but think that it could have been done differently.
     As I said, I was and still am a fan of "Cowboy Bebop." So I enjoyed the movie a lot, and wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone who has enjoyed the series. Everyone else will have to make the call on their own. It's a solid, well-animated action film, with thrills, plot twists, and well-timed humor. It didn't even seem all that violent, and I'm not convinced that it deserved an "R" rating (but then that would have seemed like an awful lot of blood had it been live-action). I'd say give it a try if it sounds like anything you might possibly enjoy, because it never hurts to broaden your horizons.
     Oh, and don't forget to watch through the entire credit sequence. Their are a few treats reserved for the patient. See you space cowboy...



Bringing Down the House

     This one will be short and sweet. From the commercials for "Bringing Down the House," I was expecting two hours of bad jokes revolving around conservative-looking white folks trying to employ African-American "urban" slang and mannerisms. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was just a small portion of the movie, and that on the whole it was a fun little flick.
     Steve Martin plays Peter Sanderson, a straight-laced, workaholic tax lawyer who's life is tunred upside-down when Charlene, the object of his Internet flirtation, turns out to be convicted criminal (played by Queen Latifah). This rather bland premise yields the expected amount of racial humor, though the only negative stereotype that turns up is that of the elderly racist WASP. And as stupid as a lot of the jokes were, I still ended up laughing.
     "Bringing Down the House" actually had a more serious tone than the ads would lead you to believe. There were a couple of interesting subplots threading there way through the film, including a moderatley suspenseful whodunnit and rocky romance. Unfortunately, the film couldn't seem to decide whether or not it wanted to handle these plots with any level of gravity, or just play everything as slapstick. So while scenes like those that included Steve Martin's absurd dancing were funny, they made it hard to find a consistent mood. In addition, there were a couple of big holes in the plot, particularly toward the end. Why, for instance, was it necessary to kidnap the little old lady? I could see no reason besides it being an opportunity to place her in a series of unlikely comedic situations. If the entire movie had been this loose, I would never have noticed lapses like this. But it sat on the cusp of having a good plot to go along with the humor, then seemingly sacrificed the former for the latter.
     All of that being said, I'll reiterate that I enjoyed "Bringing Down the House." I laughed where I was supposed to, and it even caught me off guard once or twice. This may not be the most glowing of reviews, but the movie really did turn out to be a worthwhile comedy.



Adaptation

     Most of the time, I rely on you, the reader, to decide whether you'll like a movie I review, based on the content of that review and your past history of agreement with my tastes. But every once in a while, I fell the need to go the extra mile and warn you that a particular movie is "not for everyone." "Adaptation" is a movie for which I need to do just that. And it's not due to the "mature content" (although it is rated "R," so parents be warned), but due to the movie's basic eccentricity. Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman, who brought us "Being John Malkovitch" join forces again for "Adaptation." And though the two movies could hardly be more unlike one another, they are both very different from typical Hollywood fare. If you liked one, you may well enjoy the other. But I offer no guarantees.
     "Adaptation" is the story of the writing of "Adaptation." How's that for a strange start? The film follows screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (played by Nichloas Cage) as he attempts to adapt a book called "The Orchid Thief" into screenplay form. Lots of voice- overs, flashbacks, and flash-forwards illuminate both the story of the book, and the process of the adaptation.
     But this plot, such as it is, serves mostly as a vehicle by which we get into the heads of the characters. And this is where "Adaptation" really starts to shine. The main characters are handled with a degree of honesty generally absent from Hollywood movies. Charlie Kaufman, in particular, is a mess of conflicting emotions and neuroses that would seem over the top in any other movie, but here it just makes him feel real. All of the angst and self-doubt that real people experience, but characters in stories usually don't, are present in Charlie's frequent voice-overs. Susan Orlean, author of "The Orchid Thief," is probably the film's next deepest character. Although not as out-and-out neurotic as Charlie, she experiences her fair share of emotional turmoil, and as the movie progresses we get to see a lot of what lies under her facade of professionalism.
     In a way, the handling of the movie's supporting characters is even more impressive than that of its leads. The plot arcs of Charlie Kaufman and Susan Orlean don't cross for the majority of the movie, and so the two interact primarily with Donald Kaufman and John Laroche, their respective foils. These two characters seem, at first, to be relatively straightforward goofy caricatures. And in most movies, that impression would hold true, with the oafish supporting characters acting only as an object of ridicule for our protagonist(s), and having no depth beyond that. But "Adaptation" treats these characters as real people, and shows that even those people who you may write off as "low class" (in the case of Laroche) or "flaky" (in the case of Donald) have the same depth of character as anyone else. The moments in the movie when this depth comes out are wonderful, and feel all the more true in that they surprise the main characters as much as they do the audience.
     It would not be fair, however, to say so many good things about the characters without praising the actors who played them. As good as the writing was, the characters would not have felt so true if the actors had not absolutely nailed their parts. Naturally, the biggest portion of praise has to go to Nicholas Cage, for playing both Charlie and Donald Kaufman. But it is arguable that Meryl Streep actually performed the more difficult role, since her character, Susan Orlean was considerably more subtle than the Kaufman twins. In any case, both Cage and Streep gave Oscar-worthy performances, even to an uncultured eye like my own. And though Chris Cooper, as John Laroche, delivered the only other really stand- out performance, the rest of the supporting cast was solid and held up to the high standards set by the leads.
     "Adaptation" did suffer from one major stumbling block, in my opinion. In the latter half of the film, the entire movie suddenly changes into an entirely different kind of movie. The jump from meandering, character-driven weirdness into typical Hollywood cliche came as a big shock. I laughed at first, because the detour was so obvious that it had to be on purpose. But the problem was that I didn't actually get the joke. So when the "Hollywood cliche" portion of the plot just kept going and going, I started to wonder if the film was actually taking itself seriously. The truth us that there's something very clever going on here, and I'm not going to spoil it by telling you. I didn't actually figure it out until after the movie had ended. Once I did, my opinion of the film improved. So the crux of the problem is that some audience members (I was not alone in my confusion) just won't "get the joke" in the latter protion of the movie, and even if they figure it out later, this will decrease their enjoyment of the movie. If the filmmakers could have just made the reason for the transition a little more clear (and believe me, I am a strong opponent of spoon-feeding the audience), I think it would have been a better movie.
     Having voiced my one complaint, I can finish by reiterating that I really liked "Adaptation." Some people won't get it, and some people won't like it even if they do get it. But I loved it for its departure from the norm, and highly recommend it to anyone with a similar taste for the unusual.



Daredevil

     By now, my regular readers should know that I'm a sucker for superhero movies. And with the recent successes of movies based on Marvel comic titles (those being last year's "Spider-Man" and the previous year's "X-Men"), I was eager to check out the latest such offering, despite my lack of familiarity with the title, and the uninspiring ads. The short version is that I'm not sorry I saw the movie, but I can't give it my wholehearted recommendation for everyone.
     As a super-powered action movie, "Daredevil" delivers pretty well. Impatient audience members may get bored with the long sequences of character development between fight scenes, but these shouldn't cause a problem for most viewers. And when they do come along, the action scenes are usually pretty cool, with lots of the wire-assisted acrobatics we've come to expect these days. On the other hand, there were a lot of fight sequences (or portions thereof) in this movie that just didn't work for me, for one reason or another. For instance, the first fight between Daredevil and Elektra has a very stilted quality to it, as if the fighters are performing a series of carefully choreographed dance moves. And while this is no doubt closer to what the actors were actually doing, it didn't lead to the impression that the characters were actually enaged in any sort of martial contest. There were also a few scenes where in which the abilities of the heroes and villains seemed a little over- the-top, even for a superhero movie. This probably isn't a fair complaint, but I just couldn't buy it when Bullseye, a highly skilled but still human villain, managed to catch and throw two handfulls of glass from a shattering window.
     Last on the list of actual complaints is my usual whipping boy, the CGI. Some of the more involved acrobatics in "Daredevil" were accomplished by replacing the actors with pure-CG characters. And it is painfully obvious whenever this occurs. Did the characters just get shinier and start moving like they are made of rubber? Then the digital versions have taken over. I'm sure that someday CGI technology will reach the point where these transitions are seamless, but movie makers haven't figured out that we're not there yet.
     So far, I've only managed to say one nice thing about this movie, and I managed to follow it up with two paragraphs' worth of qualifications. But the movie was better than that. Daredevil's origin story was very well done, for instance, particularly with regard to the depiction of his super-sensory powers. Most of the rest of Daredevil's civilian life as Matt Murdock, blind lawyer, was similarly well done, although his interactions with Elektra generally fell flat.
     One thing that was unmitigatedly cool about "Daredevil" was the villain Bullseye, and the scene-stealing job that Colin Farrell did in portraying him. While Ben Affleck did a decent job as Daredevil/Matt Murdock, and Jennifer Garner gave us an uninspiring (though attractive) Elektra, Farrell's Bullseye just oozed character, and generally hogged all the attention from the good guys. Within his first ten minutes of screentime, we know all we will ever need to about the character: he can turn anything into a deadly weapon, and will happily use such weapons for fun or profit. The rest is just gravy, with Farrell leaving no doubt as to just how unhinged his villain is.
     My opinions on the movie were obviously very mixed. There was quite a bit to like, and lots not to like. For me, the Bullseye character was probably worth the price of admission by itself, and I'd have been content if the movie ended after his final showdown with Daredevil. There are some good fight scenes and some bad fight scenes, some cool effects and some poor effects, some genuine pathos and some maudlin moments. In general, unless you're a big comic book fan, this one is probably better as a rental.



Red Dragon

     Now this is something you don't see too often: two different movies based on the same book, where the book is not a "classic." In this case I'm referring to "Red Dragon," the second movie to be adapted from the book of the same name (the first having been 1986's "Manhunter"). And there is little doubt as to why that book has received a second treatment - we just can't get enough of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter.
     This time around, Ed Norton stars as retired FBI agent Will Graham, whos uncanny ability to imagine himself in the shoes of a psychopath makes him invaluable in the pursuit of difficult cases. Anthony Heald reprises his "Silence of the Lambs" role as Dr. Chilton, Lecter's ill-fated psychologist. Harvey Keitel steps into the role of Jack Crawford (formerly played by Scott Glen), who you may remember as Agent Starling's mentor from "Silence" and "Hannibal." And then of course there is Ralph Fiennes, who plays the film's titular mass-murderer, more commonly referred to as the "Tooth Fairy."
     Probably my biggest gripe in "Red Dragon" is with the handling of Will Graham. Although I think Norton is a fine actor, I had trouble buying him in this role. Among other things, he seemed a bit too young for the part, despite the makeup department's apparent conviction that a permanent five o'clock shadow would do the trick. But the biggest problem is in the wiriting, rather than the casting. Graham should have been a very dark character, whos insight into the minds of criminals is as much a thing to be feared as it is a tool for good. But this idea was very much downplayed in the movie, and in fact we were treated to very few of the leaps of reason that are supposed to make the character so special. On the other hand, I can only make these complaints because I've read the book. Those who haven't won't know any better, and probably will not share my dissatisfaction with the character.
     Aside from my complaints about the characterization of Will Graham, this was a fairly faithful adaption of the book. As with almost any such adaption, a great deal had to be dropped in order to fit the remainder into a movie of reasonable length. And, of course, certain scenes and dialogue had to be changed in order to fit into the cinemtaic narrative style. But overall, the important details of the book remained intact, including some of my favorite scenes. Gievn the aforementioned constraints, I haven't decided whether to be pleased or dissapointed with the handling of the Tooth Fairy. On the one hand, his internal struggle is an important part of the story, and was cut considerably short in the movie. On the other hand, the way this struggle was portrayed in the book would have been difficult to pull off on screen, so perhaps I should be pleased that the filmmakers were able to get the point across at all.
     Given that this movie's entire existence can probably be attributed to the popularity of the Hannibal Lecter character, it comes as a pleasant surprise that Lecter does not actually get much more face-time than in the original text. Much as was the case in "Silence," Lecter may steal the show with his appearances, but not so much that we forget who the movie is supposed to be about. So we get our Lecter fix without the movie turning into two hours of "Hannibal Makes Witty Comments and Veiled Threats." The result was rather nice, kind of like having your cake and eating it, too.
     And even aside from Lecter's scene-stealing appearances, "Red Dragon" is a good movie. The suspense feels very real as we follow Graham's investigation, and get our first glimpses into the mind of the killer. And those glimpses are wonderfully disturbing. I'll go so far as to say that the examination of the Tooth Fairy's inner workings may be a little too strange for some viewers. Combine that with a few brief flashes of graphic violence, and some of you will know better than to see this movie.
     But if you can take the blood, and if you're at all a fan of the previous films in the Hannibal universe, than you'll like "Red Dragon." It's not as good as "Silence of the Lambs," but it's not as over-the-top gory as "Hannibal." It's just a well-done suspense thriller, with the added bonus of scenes with everyone's favorite cannibal. There are some well-executed scenes, both dramatic and action, including a shoot-out unlike any I've seen befgore. That, and it was almost worth the price of admission for the last five seconds of the movie alone. Delicious.



Spirited Away

     Those of you who have been reading my reviews since the beginning (or have ever been bored enough to read through the archives) may remember my review of Princess Mononoke. If so, you'll know that I've long been a fan of Japanese artist/director Hayao Miyazaki. So there was no question that I was going to make time to see his latest film, "Spirited Away."
     With my review of his previous film, I had to go out of my way to point out that it was not a children's movie, and was potentially not rated severely enough. But I am surprisingly pleased to say that "Spirited Away" is a perfectly PG movie, and one that I can unreservedly recommend to families. Although there are some elements that might be frightening or confusing to very young children, I'd say that this movie is no more traumatic than your average Disney insta-classic.
     "Spirited Away" tells the story of a young girl, Chihiro, and her magical journey through the "spirit world" of Japan's Shinto heritage. What begins as her family's move to their new home ends with her parents trapped in the spirit realm, where Chihiro must follow in order to rescue them. Armed with little more than childish innocence and stubbornness, she faces an increasingly bizarre cast of characters in the pursuit of her goal. The resulting adventure is alternately exciting and heartwarming, and full of delightful twists.
     The animist underpinnings of "Spirited Away" may be the biggest obstacle to accessibility for western audiences. The various river spirits, radish spirits, dragons and so forth are not something we're brought up to understand. Nonetheless, I feel that these elements are presented in such a way that most audiences - adults and children alike - will pick up on the concepts quickly. And once you understand what they are supposed to represent, you can sit back and enjoy the wide range of colorful characters.
     I have previously stated my opinions about Miyazaki's artistic style in my review of "Princess Mononoke," but I'll summarize here. While Miyazaki is very talented, and lends life and complexity to every object and scene, his human characters tend to lack detail. This is less of a problem for "Spirited Away," since very few of the characters are human anyway. And since the remaining characters and settings are up to Miyazaki's usual standard of excellence, the movie is a visual treat.
     As you can tell, I enjoyed this movie a great deal. It may be a children's movie, but it remains enjoyable for all ages by refusing to talk down to its audience or pull any dramatic punches. It still isn't a movie for everyone, but if you've ever liked a movie meant for kids, then "Spirited Away" is worth a try.



Road to Perdition

     I'll start this review off with a warning: if you're looking for some light summer entertainment, "Road to Perdition" is not the movie for you. I'll go so far as to say it's a bit of a downer. But it is also a very well done coming-of-age movie, and I strongly recommend it to everyone else.
     This is a period film, and as usual I have to add the disclaimer that I don't know enough about the setting (in this case, Illinois in the winter of 1931) to judge the film on its accuracy. But the movie's handling of its background felt right, and created a very immersive effect. One of the little details I liked was the film's treatment of Al Capone. He was an important player in the time and place in which "Road to Perdition" is set, and his presence as an off-screen character effectively grounded the movie without overwhelming the minor players that make up its cast.
     And by "minor players," I am of course referring to the movie's characters, rather than the actors that play them. A great deal of fuss has been made over the fact that both Tom Hanks and Paul Newman star in the film, as Michael Sullivan and John Rooney, respectively. Nor can I blame the fuss-makers, for both to a stand-up job. I'm tempted to laud Hanks in particular for playing a very dark, troubled character, seemingly far removed from his usual roles. But although he manages to capture the inner conflict of the character, there remains the same core that we find in every character Hanks ever plays. I don't know that this is necessarily a bad thing, just don't be surprised when Sullivan's emotional side has an essential Tom Hanks-ness to it.
     Although "Road to Perdition" isn't a mystery, or otherwise filled with surprising plot twists, I still don't like giving away spoilers in my reviews. Which means there isn't a whole lot more I can say about the movie. The plot and characters are fairly straightforward, and very engaging. It's bloody, even graphic at times, but then its main characters are dark men who do dark deeds, and the violence underscores the journey that Sullivan and his son must make. And though I'm loathe to use words like "perfect," I can't really find any flaws in this movie. It is both grim and optimistic at the same time, and probably would have reminded me of American Beauty even if I hadn't known they were both directed by the same man. Knowing that, it's no surprise that I so throughly enjoyed this movie, and that I recommend it to basically everyone.



Reign of Fire

     Was there ever any doubt I'd make the time to see "Reign of Fire?" It's not that aren't plenty of other movies out that I want to see - heck, I've even been hearing that the "Powerpuff Girls" movie is pretty good. But even with its high potential for awfulness, I had to check out a movie that the commercials advertised as "'Road Warrior' meets Dragonslayer.'" And I'm pleased to say that it turned out to be a pretty good movie.
     The biggest stumbling block to the average viewer's enjoyment of this movie is the whole "dragon apocalypse" concept. Either you'll accept the film's cursory explanation of the rise of the dragons and humanity's concurrent fall, or you won't. Personally, I was able to swallow the whole package, despite the lack of detailed exposition. What was important was that the movie stayed true to its own internal logic, so it was easy to suspend disbelief.
     Further kudos go to the writers for coming up with a reasonably believable explanation for how the world could be infested and humanity defeated by thousands of dragons, while enabling the heroes to achieve victory within the space of a two-hour movie. The rather simple plotline kept "Reign of Fire" moving fast, to the point where I was almost surprised when it ended. The cynic in me wants to say that the plot didn't really matter, since it was just an excuse for a series of action scenes, effects shots, and sequences featuring Matthew McConaughey and Christian Bale with their shirts off. But I didn't really care, because it was just a fun movie.
     And it's always nice to see an effects-driven movie with effects that live up to expectations. The dragons in "Reign of Fire" look very good, and interact realistically with their surroundings. And there are a couple of scenes involving the movie's primary antagonist dragon that are jaw-droppingly cool. It helps that the effects aren't just well done, but the computer-generated dragons are doing visually interesting things.
     Still, this movie won't be everybody's cup of tea. I'm fond of both the fantasy and post-apocalyptic genres, of which this movie is a blend. If you don't like one or both of these, you may not react so positively. And I'll admit that the plot is a bit predictable at times. Fortunately I was either far too wrapped up in things to bother predicting what came next, or I was pleased with how a particular plot point was handled, despite having guessed it in advance. But "Reign of Fire" won't stand up to a whole lot of scrutiny, so sticklers for narrative completeness be warned. And since this paragraph seems to have nicely summed up both the good and bad of the movie, I think I'll just end the review here.



Minority Report

     It will come as a surprise to no one that I made it out to go see "Minority Report" on its opening weekend. I'm a sci-fi geek, and a big fan of both Speilberg and Philip K. Dick (upon who's story this film is based). Nor will anyone be surprised that I liked this movie, since I haven't turned in negative review since last year. But surprising or no, it's my job to tell everyone how much I liked this movie, and why.
     "Minority Report" tells the story of a near future (2054) in which Washington D.C. is the benificiary of an experimental "precrime" program. A trio of precognitive humans ("precogs") can see future murders, allowing the perpetrators to be caught before they even commit the crime. The first few minutes of the movie are spent introducing this system by way of example: John Anderton, head detective and protagonist, stops a last-minute murder in the nick of time. Once the primary players and the rules of the system are established, we're ready for the real plot, in which Anderton is predicted guilty of murder, and is forced to run from his fellow precrime officers.
     Right off the bat, there's one big problem to get around: the whole "time paradox" issue. That is, if the precogs see the future, and the murders they see never happen because the perpetrators are caught ahead of time, then the visions were wrong because that version of the future never happened. "Minority Report" makes no effort to resolve this conflict, so that's one problem you have to be ready to ignore, or it will ruin the whole movie. I was happy to do this, and instead focus on the other big plot holes.
     I won't go into detail, but there are some pretty noticeable plot problems in this film. One of them big enough to drive a Lexus through. And while I was able to come up with plausible explanations for most of the plot holes (with the noteable exception of a loose eyeball that really should have shriveled up after all that time outside the body), I don't think that should have been my job. A minute or so of clever exposition on such topics as why a convicted murderer (since the conviction seems to come before the arrest in this world) wouldn't have his security clearances revoked would have made my viewing experience more trouble- free.
     Other than that, the movie was entertaining and action-packed. There was a good mix of action, "whodunnit" suspense, and well-timed humor. On the latter note, there were even a few bits of "gross-out" humor, of the type normally reserved for teen comedies and horror flicks, that came off surprisingly well. And though there were a couple of important explanatory narratives that I didn't initially "get," the whole murder-conspiracy-mystery portion of the movie played out quite well, and was thankfully free of unexplained loose ends. What it has instead are some very surprising twists, so that every time I thought I knew exactly what was coming next, I turned out wrong.
     And no sci-fi movie review of mine would be complete without comments on the gadgets, technology and background of the film. There were a lot of very cool ideas floating around in "Minority Report," and they are well integrated into the film. Although frequently used to further the plot, the technology never becomes the focus of the scene (with the obvious exception of the whole precrime concept). And although it's hard to believe that some of the futuristic technologies shown will actually come to light in the next 52 years, most of the cool sci-fi advancements seem to be logical progressions of current technology. Of particular note are the ubiquitous eye-scanners used throughout the film. In addition to making our hero's escape from justice that much more difficult, they lend a very dark, Orwellian cast to the film's future vision. And given the recent political atmosphere here in the U.S., it's not too hard to imagine a future where your ID is automatically read by everything from office doors to holographic billboards ("You deserve a Guiness®, John Anderton!").
     This darkness extends into many areas of the film, and even our protagonist has a dingy side. Given that the concept around which "Minority Report" is based has a very "Big Brother" feel to it, the Orwellian brush is used pretty lightly. The inherent darkness is never addressed or given focus; it is simply always there, lurking behind the scenes. The effect is pleasing.
     So there you go. I didn't get around to mentioning some of the neat ways the movie took advantage of having precognitive characters, nor just how cool the precrime flyers were. But I think I covered the important points, and certainly got the message across that I really liked this one. See you next week (or maybe the week after)!



The Bourne Identity

     I want my regular readers to know that I'm not getting lazy or anything - this really is the second review in a row in which I don't have much to say, because I liked the movie. This time it was "The Bourne Identity," and as with "Sum of All Fears" or last year's "Spy Game," it was a solid, entertaining spy flick with no flaws worth complaining about (not that I ever let that stop me).
     The plot this time revolves around Jason Bourne, a CIA operative who has lost all memory after a failed mission. Jason's search for his lost identity leaves him on the run from his former employers, his only ally a harried German vagabond named Marie. The movie's perspective shifts focus from Bourne to his pursuers and back again, such that the audience always has a more complete picture of what's going on than any of the characters do. But at least one mystery is held until the very end: we, the audience, don't find out what really happened on Bourne's failed mission until he figures it out himself.
     And the journey from fade-in to final revelation is just about everything you could ask for in a spy thriller. "The Bourne Identity" delivers furious fight scenes, cool gadgets, clever spy tricks, a fun car chase, and the requisite love plot. The good guys win, the bad guys get what they deserve, and only a few characters live in the gray depths between. And of course, it wouldn't be an action movie if something didn't get blown up.
     The only real weak point of the movie was the love plot. The chemistry between Matt Damon (Bourne) and Franka Potente (Marie) was fine, but I couldn't quite figure out why a down-on-her-luck expatriate would be so eager to get involved with an amnesiac fugitive. Maybe Matt Damon is just that hunky. I've certainly seen worse love stories, so in the scheme of things it wasn't really so bad.
     My only other issue is more a piece of idle speculation than a complaint. Julia Stiles has a fair amount of screen time as Nicolette, the CIA's main girl in Paris. But despite her key placement in the plot and frequent, short scenes, she really doesn't do much of anything. It really would have been the same movie without her character. So I have to wonder what she was doing there at all, or if maybe the heart of that character died on the cutting room floor.
     At this point, I really shouldn't have to say anything more. If that's the best I can come up with as far as gripes, then it must not be a bad movie. "The Bourne Identity" wasn't any sort of ground-breaking gem of film-making, but it was an entertaining way to spend a couple of hours. And that's good enough for me.



Star Wars Episode II - Attack of the Clones

     Allow me to wax nostalgic for a moment. For the very few of you who were there at the time, you'll know why this review is kind of special to me. Because it was my impromptu review of "The Phantom Menace" that started all this silliness. That review, with all of it's shattered hopes and annoyed nitpicks, is gone for good. But now that this has become something of a permanent fixture around here, I figured it was nothing less than my duty to review "Attack of the Clones" as soon as humanly possible (short of camping out ahead of time, that is).
     The good news is that Epsidoe II is considerably better than Episode I. It may not stand up among the greats of western cinema, but it has a lot more to like than its immediate predecessor, and a lot less to dislike. All in all, it makes a decent contribution to the "Star Wars" franchise.
     Because I actually have a number of good things to say about this movie, let's start with the bad. And fairly high on that list is the acting. I know that nobody goes to a "Star Wars" film on the lookout for Oscar-winning performances, but I actually thought that Natalie Portman did a better job in the previous film. Though I'll admit I haven't done a side-by-side comparison. Either way, her spotty performance was still better than that of Hayden Christensen, this film's Anakin Skywalker. Although both actors have genuinely good moments, these are few and far between, and the rest is just unconvincing. On a brighter note, most of the rest of the performances (primarily from experienced actors like Samuel L. Jackson, Ewan McGregor, and Christopher Lee) are just fine, and only run into trouble around certain points of awkward dialogue. It's difficult to say, but we may even be able to blame the substandard performances of Portman and Christensen on the often stilted dialogue, (which is still largely better than that of Episode I) of which those two get more than their fair share.
     Some characters, of course, are too annoying for me to worry about whether they are delivering their lines well. There were quite a few of these in Episode I, and I was sorry to see that some of the worst offenders returned for "Attack of the Clones." To be precise, Jar-Jar Binks, Trade Federation Viceroy Nute Gunray, and weird flying blue thing Watto all return in small roles. The former two retain all of their annoying mannerisms and oddly racist-seeming accents. I suppose that the inclusion of these important characters from the first film was necessary, but to me it just served as a reminder of what a mistake they were in the first place. Jar-Jar is only in four scenes this time around, one of them actually pivotal to the plot, but even those few brief appearances were painful to watch.
     One of my most oft-repeated complaints about "Phantom Menace" was the use of poorly timed comic relief, and the over-use of dumb luck in the movie's major fights. And again, most of this was centered around Jar-Jar. So it's with some measure of relief that I only have a minor nitpick in this area with regard to Episode II. The "dumb luck" factor is gone completely, letting our heroes win the day through quick wits and careful application of their talents. And this time only one of the attempts at comic relief rubbed me the wrong way. There is a bit towards the end of the movie where poor C-3PO finds himself once again bereft of certain key body parts. But the huge contrivance required to bring this about, combined with the truly awful puns that serve as most of C-3PO's lines in the middle of the big fight scene, made the whole turn of events much more annoying than funny.
     Last on the hit list are some minor nitpicks with the effects. I continue to maintain that movie-makers are just expecting too much from CGI. It can do some amazing things, but it's far from perfect. Yoda, in particular, just did not look very real to me in most of his scenes, and I think I still prefer the old puppet. Of course, the puppet could never have done some of the things that Yoda did this time around, so perhaps it was a necessary trade-off. The same cannot be said for Watto and the unnamed leader of the Bank Clan, both of whom are unconvincing and unnecessary CGI creations. Last on this list of poor effects is a surprising entry: during one of the scenes on the world of Coruscant, my eyes were drawn to a particluar background piece. It was a matte painting of the next room that was so poorly done that I have no idea how it ever made it to the screen.
     I am happy to say that none of these specific complaints about the effects would be possible if the effects on the whole were not good. Had that been the case, it would have been much easier for me to just write the whole thing off. But the effects were good, and the vast majority of them were completely believable. Through most of the movie, I didn't find myself thinking about how great the effects were. And this is a very good thing. It means that most of the effects - the digitally created backgrounds, vehicles, and characters - were so well done and well integrated that I didn't even think of them as effects. And in the most effects-rich scenes, I was too busy trying to keep track of the action to notice the details.
     And though they can get a bit hard to follow at times, the action scenes in "Attack of the Clones" were truly a glory to behold. The climactic battle, in particular, was everything it should have been. It was filled with adrenaline, dying Jedi, explosions, heroic deeds, clashing armies, alien monsters, and pretty much everything but the sci-fi kitchen sink. And Yoda. His face and robes may have been a little too obviously CG, and a couple of his poses a little too campy, but Yoda gets to show us what being a Jedi Master is all about this time. And much to my surprise, I loved every minute of it.
     But of course, there is a more to Episode II than action. After all, there is a lot of ground to cover between Anakin Skywalker, Padawan learner and Darth Vader, dark lord of the Sith. The plot of "Attack of the Clones" was surprisingly complex, and included a great deal of much-hoped-for character development. Indeed for a movie that is theoretically just setting things up for an inevitable conclusion (the rise of the Empire, destruction of the Jedi, and the birth of Luke and Leia), this one turns out to be something of a mystery, posing a few questions that remain unanswered when the credits roll. And though some will disagree, I even found the love story between Anakin Skywalker and Queen come Senator Amidala to be fairly compelling. This time around, the twisty turny plot actually has me looking forward to the next movie.
     Since this is a "Star Wars" movie, after all, it's pretty much required that I take a moment to drool over the settings and mechanical designs. "Attack of the Clones" features perhaps the widest variety of settings to date, each with its own particular look and feel. The planets of Naboo, Tatooine, and Coruscant have all been seen in previous movies, in which their particular styles were set. The new locales and inhabitants attributed to these planets in this movie all fit well, aside from an out-of-place 50's-style diner used for one of the scenes on Coruscant. The new ships, aliens, and robots all look really good, and seem to follow a logical design-sense.
     The two new locales we visit in this film are the planets of Geonosis and Kamino. The former is a rocky world filled with huge factories and weirdly organic rock formations, and inhabited by an insect-like species. The latter is a watery world inhabited by tall, pale aliens living in brightly-lit domes. The two locales could not be much more different from one another, but each is very stylish in its own way, and I pretty much fell in love with both of them. This is an exaggeration of course, but the extent of my hyberbole should give you some idea how much I liked the design of these planets and their inhabitants.
     So let's see - action, effects, plot, design... have I left anything out? There are a lot of specific little things that I liked that I haven't managed to mention, so I'll just lump it all together in one statement: There are a lot of little details that help make this movie great. This is basically a reiteration of what I said at the start of this review - that compared to "Phantom Menace," "Attack of the Clones" has a lot more to like, and a lot less to dislike. And this one I will be seeing again, because there's no way I caught all of the action the first time. I still think the title is pretty dumb (moreso, really, now that I've seen it), but this time the movie makes up for it. So go ahead and renew your faith in the "Star Wars" saga, and then get ready for the three-year wait for Episode III.



Windtalkers

     I always try to avoid hearing anyone else's opinion of a movie I'm planning to review, so that I can write a review based on my own first impressions, without any outside influence. Of course, it's inevitable that unless I go and see the film alone, I'll end up discussing it with someone before I can get around to my review. In this case, I've had all weekend to talk about "Windtalkers," and the more I think about it, the worse the movie gets.
     The setting is the Pacific theatre of WWII, with an introductory bit in the Solomons, and the rest on Saipan. Nicholas Cage plays Sargeant Joe Enders, a U.S. marine given the responsibility of watching over a Navajo "code talker" on the front lines. Paired with Private Ben Yahzee, Enders struggles against both the Japanese and his own personal demons all the way through the Saipan campaign.
     I make no claims to being any authority on history, or military technology. In a movie like this, I more or less have to trust the filmmakers to do their research, because I won't know any better. For instance, although I knew that the Navajo language was used as the basis of our unbreakable code during WWII, that's where my knowledge on that subject ends. But I do know that there are some important things that "Windtalkers" got wrong. For instance, I'm pretty sure that the bazooka, however effective a weapon it might have been, would have created a smaller explosion than that caused by 16-inch naval guns. And it seems unlikely to me that the Japanese defenders of Saipan made a regular habit of abandoning their perfectly good trenches to make suicidal charges against the opposing American soldiers. But I could be wrong.
     Fortunately, I feel much more qualified to judge when a movie has defied those laws of reality which are not historically based. For instance, I am used to seeing the good guys hit with every shot, while the bad guys can't hit the broad side of a barn. But it really starts to strain my suspension of disbelief when the wounded hero fires off about five shots in under a second, each one killing a separate target. Particularly when the return fire can't seem to more than wing our exposed, limping hero.
     If you've seen the trailers for "Windtalkers," you may remember a scene showing Nicholas Cage sitting in a car, on an oddly lit beach, with an attractive young woman, having deep conversation. Don't worry, this scene is not actually in the movie. Whatever love story was originally planned for this film died somewhere along the way. Instead, we never really find out just what the relationship between Enders and nurse whatsername is supposed to be, or why we the audience should care what happens to it.
     And though he was theoretically the "nice guy" to contrast with Nick Cage's dark hero, I really didn't care much for Ben Yahzee either. Perhaps he was attempting to exude a sense of Native American serenity, or perhaps Adam Beach isn't a very good actor. He had moments of genuine emotion, but for most of the movie, the character was very flat. I was much more invested in the pairing of Christian Slater and Roger Willie as Anderson and Whitehorse. Their small roles were better acted, and had more to say about the sub-themes of race relations and the hard choices of soldiers.
     This is coming off as a very negative review, considering the fact that I was more or less entertained by "Windtalkers." But like I said, it gets worse the more I think about it. The sort of "John Wayne, unstoppable action hero" style of things, the poor plot, and the absurd mismatchings of military cause and effect just don't come out positive on reflection. Pretty soon I'm groping to find anything good to say about the movie, other than "Well the Japanese tanks were cool. You don't see pictures of those too often."
     To-ha-ha-dlay tsa-na-dahl cha--gee yah-di-zini than-zie ta-a-tah tses-nah gloe-ih yeh-hes a-chin a-chin dzeh ah-losz dibeh da-ahl-zhin.



The Sum of All Fears

     This promises to be a short review, because I don't have a whole lot to say about "The Sum of All Fears." But as you should know by now, that's a good sign. It was a solid, entertaining movie, with little to complain about.
     If you like action movies, then chances are that by now you've seen one of the other Tom Clancy adaptions: "The Hunt For Red October," "Patriot Games," or "Clear and Present Danger." If so, then you're familiar with protagonist of all of these movies, CIA analyst Jack Ryan. He's back for the new movie, looking younger than ever. This time the bad guys are building a nuclear bomb, and it's Ryan's job to help find out who, where, why, and how before it's too late.
     The action moves along at a pretty good pace, and was completely involving. Even in the slower moments, I never found my thoughts wandering on to other things. To me, that's a sign that the movie-makers did something right.
     Of course, I have a couple of minor nitpicks with "Sum of All Fears." There's a fairly large explosion about three-quarters through the film, and we see a character caught in the shockwave. Wihtout getting into detail, it's a little hard to believe when we see her later with only a few minor cuts. Later, there is a rather pivotal moment when a Russian base commander goes "Dr. Strangelove," and his actions seem to go completely unnoticed by the Russians' otherwise comprehensive intelligence network. Fortunately, moments like these are few.
     Well I warned you at the start that this would be short, and now I'm basically done. "The Sum of All Fears" was entertaining and action-packed, and pretty much never lets up. It has moments of humor, and some nice little bits of spy-movie cleverness. There are some great minor characters, like CIA "operations officer" John Clark, that bring quite a bit to the film. So it's a fun ride, and worth a slot in your summer movie calendar. So says me.



Spider-Man

     There are some movies that you absolutely have to see, whether they are any good or not. Which movies fall into this category is a very personal thing. For me, one of those movies was "Dungeons & Dragons," a fact I will probably regret on my deathbed. A more widely-applicable example is the latest version of "Spider-Man." Whether you collected the comic or not (I didn't), Spider-Man is one of those heroes that has saturated our culture to the point where you know who he is and what he's about. Add to this my own childhood memories of two different Spider-Man cartoons, and some number of poorly-done TV movies, and there was no way I could miss this one.
     So it is with great relief that I tell you that "Spider-Man" was a good movie. It's a solid super-hero origin story with good action, good effects, and a genuinely engaging coming-of-age plot. It definitely helps to watch it as a "comic book movie," with a more relaxed threshhold for your suspension of disbelief. I'm normally fairly picky about bad science in movies, but at times like this I can allow myself to sit back and accept that a bite from a genetically engineered spider might turn a regular kid into a spider-man.
     My only real nitpick with this movie is with its effects. There are a number of times when the CGI is pretty obvious, and you can tell that ol' Spidey isn't really in the same world as his background. But consider two pieces of information that mitigate this complaint: One, I am overly sensitive to CGI, and frequently complain about effects that don't bother anyone else. And two, this movie wouldn't have been possible at all if the majority of the SFX weren't seamless. So this complaint comes out as more of a back-handed compliment.
     Having dealt with my one sore point, everything else is praise. The translation from ink to film was surprisingly smooth, especially given that the "Spider-Man" comic premiered in the 60's. But only a few minor updates, like replacing a radioactive spider with a gene-spliced counterpart, were required to fit the story into the modern age. All of the basic themes from the original comics, like Spider-Man's rocky relationship with the public of New York, his struggles to protect his loved ones from the dangers of his lifestyle, and the overall notion of the responsibility inherent in great power, are present and accounted for.
     In a super-hero story, the villain is often just as important as the hero, and this was another thing that the movie did right. It brought us an updated version of one of Spidey's most classic foes, the Green Goblin. In addition to providing a fair chunk of screen time to the Goblin's orgins and character development, the movie- makers saw fit to cast Willem Dafoe behind the green mask, which turned out to be a perfect fit.
     And while I'm at it, I shouldn't pass up this moment to laud the casting of Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst as Peter Parker and Mary-Jane Watson, respectively. Dunst pulls off a reasonable girl-next-door, and overall seemed to fit the role well. But Tobey Maguire brings the perfect personality to the role of Peter Parker (no alliteration intended). He doesn't play the wise-cracking version of the hero that I was expecting, but instead gives a whole range of emotions as the character develops. He starts as a completely believable high school nerd, goes through an entertaining period of joyful experimentation as his powers develop (with some help from well-done SFX), and arrives at a much more confident, self-possessed version of himself, complete with some meaty super-hero angst. The only times Maguire gets upstaged are the few appearances of J. K. Simmons as Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson, all but chewing the scenery in another perfect fit.
     I wanted to mention some of the other small roles, not because of the performances, but just because the cameos are amusing. For instance, professional wrestler "Macho Man" Randy Savage shows up in wonderful example of type-casting. And later, Spider-Man creator Stan Lee gets a split-second of screen time as face in the crowd. There are a couple of others in there, but most are so fast or so well hidden that I can't be sure I even saw them. And even though it might not count as a cameo, I enjoyed the inclusion of a slightly modified version of the old theme song from the Spider-Man cartoon (you know, the one that goes "Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can...").
     If you have any love at all for your old comic-book heroes, I don't think you can go wrong by seeing this movie. It's a great popcorn-munching action flick, with the requisite mix of romance, humor, and explosions. Moreover, it has some genuinely good performances, which is more than we've come to expect from action movies. Besides, if you don't see it, you won't know what's going on when it comes time for the sequel. This is your friendly neighborhood movie reviewer, signing off.



The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

     Wow. And let me repeat that: Wow. Not since my very first review has a movie come along with quite this much expectation riding on it. And unlike "Episode I," the first installment of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy was every bit as good as I'd hoped for. It was thorough, visually pleasing, well-acted, complex and simple at the same time, and managed to balance action, humor, and romance to a very effective degree. Like I said, wow.
     For those few of you who never read the books, and still haven't seen the movie, I'll do my best to avoid any spoilers. But for those same people, a brief plot synopsis is in order. "The Fellowship of the Ring" is the first volume of J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy epic, "The Lord of the Rings." It tells the tale of one Frodo Baggins, of the small and sturdy race known as hobbits (called "halflings" by some). Young Frodo comes into the possession of a Ring of great and terrible power, which holds the key to the world's undoing. He is joined by friends and strangers alike from across his world, the land of Middle-Earth, on a quest to take the evil Ring to the dark land of its creation and destroy it for all time. The nine companions resolved to protect the Ring - hobbits, humans, an elf, a dwarf, and a wizard - form the titular fellowship of the Ring.
     It's worth noting that this three volumes comprising "The Lord of the Rings" are modern- day classics, and have formed the cornerstone for the fantasy genre ever since their publication. Nearly all of the works of fantasy since 1955 - the good and the bad - owe a great deal to these volumes. Mostly I say all of this in order to help you enjoy "The Lord of the Rings," book or movie, in the context of the time of its inception. Many of the fantasy cliches found within were born there, and overused elsewhere.
     Since I have read the complete tale - more than once - I can't help but make comparisons between book and movie. And I'm quite pleased to say that the movie was by and large very faithful to the first volume of the book. Certain likeable scenes and even moderately important plot points were left out, and this certainly isn't a good thing. On the other hand, nothing skipped thus far was absolutely vital to the story, and given the movie's already enormous three-hour length, some sacrifices had to be made. Moreover, many of the scenes and narratives that were moved around or altered help to make the movie a more enjoyable cinematic experience. Middle-Earth is a rich, complex world, and some of these changes simplify things to the point of easy digestibility, without going too far in that direction. More dissapointing was the short shrift some of the major characters received. Legolas and Gimli, who make up the elven and dwarven contingents of the fellowship, respectively, do not undergo near as much character development as I remember from the book. Gimli in particular comes off as a little too jokey, and key scenes that establish the depth of his character are left out. You may also notice that the hobbits Merry and Pippin are pretty hard to tell apart, and provide little more than comic relief. This is actually not that far off rom the book, wherein the two remain more or less interchangeable until the final volume. And though their humor value may be a bit expanded in the movie, it actually works out well. For all of this, the aforementioned elves, dwarves, and hobbits are all portrayed exactly as described in the novel, from physical appearance to racial attitude.
     And speaking of physical appearances... this is definitely the film's strongest point. The elements of Tolkien's Middle-Earth are brought to life with startling realism. Settings such as Rivendell, the Shire, and the mines of Moria were just as I had always imagined them, only moreso. The elves are tall and fair, the dwarves are broad and surly, and the hobbits' feet are large and hairy. The orcs and Ringwraiths look great, each oozing evil in its own way. And then there are the pure CG creations, like Gollum and the Balrog. I just don't have the words to describe how very cool these two look, and how perfectly their on-screen presence captures the essence of what they are meant to be.
     Unfortunately, not all of the CG in "The Fellowship of the Ring" is quite up to this standard. It's just my usual complaint: the technology still isn't quite up to the task, and movie-makers try to get a little bit too much out of it. Some of the scenes have that odd feel to them, where some unspecified quality gives away the computer-generated nature of things. Fortunately, these scenes are few, with the biggest culprits being a two-second wide shot of the fellowship running through Moria, and a few different shots of some of our heroes trying to ride a cave troll like a bucking bronco (though the all-CG cave troll was for the most part excellent).
     As far as visual effects go, I certainly can't forget to mention the hobbits. Hobbits are a very short people, by human standards, but the main hobbit characters are played by "regular-sized" actors. So a variety of different techniques are used within the film to reduce these actors down to the required size. As with the CG, this is something that is kind of hit-and-miss. For many shots in which we don't see the character's face, little people are used as stand-ins for the hobbits. These come out poorly, due both to the noticeable increase in the number of camera changes, and the very obvious proportional differences between the little people and the actors for which they are standing in. It is less jarring, but still noticeable, when children are used for the hobbits. Fortunately, most of the scenes where CG or trick photography was used to reduce the actors to hobbit-size were seamless. In these cases the hobbits looked just right, and suspension of disbelief was easy to maintain.
     The payoff of using all of these "regular size" actors and jumping through the various SFX hoops required to make them into hobbits is this: they are damn good actors. I mean in no way to malign the talent of the little person actors of the world, but instead to state that the cast of "The Fellowship of the Ring," individually and as a whole, is just about perfect. My previously stated pleasure with the perfectly-captured imagery of the races of Middle-Earth derived in no small part from the excellent matching of actor to role. We'd all be here quite a while if I spent the time to praise everyone individually; suffice it to say that the performances were universally good. But I will take a moment to mention two performances that really stand out, primarily because the roles in question offer their actors some real meat to tear into, more than even the part of Frodo has to offer. These are Ian McKellen as wizard Gandalf the Grey, and Sean Bean as Boromir. McKellen is so impressive because he simply is Gandalf; he manages to embody all of the ineffable qualities of the old wizard. And Boromir simply became my favorite character in the film, because he is brave and noble, but flawed and conflicted, and Sean Bean manages to pull off all of the strength and tragedy of the character.
     If I could change one thing about the movie, it would be this: there is a very poor action scene towards the end of the movie that should never have made it to screen. Let me set the stage by saying that the Moria sequence was one of my favorites from the book, and sends chills down my spine every time I read it. So I was very pleased when the movie's rendition generated the same effect. The entire segment comes together as the most action-packed and dramatic part of the entire movie. But then someone decided that it wasn't enough, and threw in an extra action scene, not featured in the book, wherein the characters must cross a crumbling stair. My feeling is that this scene only detracts from the remainder of the sequence. It is both cliched and nonsensical within context, and a completely unnecessary addition given the already high-quality action in which it is placed. Since it neither added to the cinematic experience, nor was an element of faithfullness to the text, it had no place in the film at all.
     I suppose if I could change one other thing, it would be to reduce the level of distortion in the CGI-enhanced delivery of one of Galadriel's speeches. The speech in question is one of the few I remember well from the book, and is fairly important in terms of an overall understanding of the plot. Unfortunately, the reverberating sound effect used to grant the speech greater oomph makes it nearly impossible to actually hear what is being said.
     I seem once again to have ended on a gripe rather than a good note, but hopefully the preponderance of praise in this review leaves no doubt as to my feelings towards "The Fellowship of the Ring." This is one to see. And unlike the case with "Harry Potter," I'm going to go so far as to recommend both seeing the movie and reading the book (if you haven't already), in whichever order you prefer. Because both have a great deal to offer. And all that's left to do now is wait out the next year until "The Two Towers" hits the screens.



Resident Evil

     Movies based on video games are risky business. Most recently, we saw how horribly, horribly wrong it can go with "Tomb Raider." Looking further into the past, screen gems such as "Wing Commander" and "Super Mario Brothers" spring to mind. So I wasn't looking forward to "Resident Evil," the new Milla Jovovich vehicle based on the identically-titled game series that I've never played. But after a couple of other reviewers declared that the movie was better than they had expected, I figured it might be worth the risk to see Leeloo Dallas kick a little more sci-fi butt.
     Even though I've never played the "Resident Evil" games, I'm a big enough gamer geek to know a little about them. And I noticed that the various commercials and trailers for this movie have done a very good job of concealing just what exactly it's about. So although I knew what to expect, I'm going to refrain from spoiling any surprises for you prospective viewers out there. And for those of you who are familiar with the games, I'll simply say that the movie is quite faithful to the genre, if not the actual plot.
     What I can say without spoiling anything is that this movie is set within the corporate headquarters of "Umbrella," a sort of Microsoft/AOL/Time-Warner mega-corporation that owns just about everything. After their central computer goes apparently (and predictably) berserk, a team of Umbrella's well-armed "sanitation workers" comes in to investigate and clean up the mess. Jovovich's character, Alice, and two male characters are wild cards encountered by the team early on, their motivations and relations to Umbrella remaining a mystery for some time. And as one might expect, once the team and their three incongruous charges penetrate the depths of Umbrella's HQ, things start to go very wrong.
     One thing that struck me early on, and remained with me for the length of the film, was how very much this movie was like a video game. That's going to seem like a very obvious statement to some people, but it really is a bit more deep than that. It's not that the movie is based on a video game, it's the various set elements and plot points it uses which are common currency in modern action games. Gamers watching "Resident Evil" will feel a vague sense of deja vu as the characters ride on an underground train or walk through a giant, crate-filled storeroom. And maybe I was just in a video game frame of mind, but it even seemed like the way the characters acquired and used their weapons was reminiscent of any number of action games I've played. Certainly the final showdown with the film's "boss monster" could have come from any first-person shooter in the last five years, and a little green status bar at the top of the screen would not have surprised me much.
     But I've gone on at some length here without actually telling you whether or not I liked the movie. In short, I did. "Resident Evil" is a solid, fast-paced action flick, and it kept me engaged and entertained for the duration. As seen in the previews, Milla Jovovich engages in the type of high-kicking, slow-motion martial arts we've all come to expect since "The Matrix." And this is another film in which the characters' fighting prowess has just enough rationalization attached to remain believable. The visual effects are good, at least as far as props, make-up, and other non-CG elements go. And the overall tone of the movie is just right, with music and close-ups used to manipulate the audience into startled jumps at all the right times.
     Of course, it wasn't all good, and no review would be complete without at least a few gripes. For one thing, "Resident Evil" is yet another movie that tries to get too much out of computer graphics. There's a CG beastie in the movie that just looks bad. Another problem is that several apparent scenes of foreshadowing, wherein a character's attention is fixated on some otherwise benign detail, lead absolutely nowhere. And then there's the way the heroes have to fight their way out of rooms full of bad guys, but are later able to run back through with no apparent opposition. Or the rather thin scientific explanations draped over some of the plot elements. I don't like to just wave my hands and say that it's all okay, because this is just an action movie. But it certainly does make it easier to overlook a few flaws like this, since they don't raise their ugly heads enough to harsh my mellow, so to speak.
     There's yet more praise I could give this movie, but not without giving away what I hope will be a pleasant surprise to most viewers. Of course, it's quite possible that not everyone will share my enthusiasm for the particular brand of science-fiction that "Resident Evil" delivers. Since I haven't told you just what that is, saying you might not like it is no help. But it might help for me to warn you that this movie can be excessivley bloody at times. Otherwise, if you want a dose of survival- horror action, centered around a Ukrainian model in an evening gown and leather jacket, this is a good one to see.



Brotherhood of the Wolf

     As part of an effort to increase the frequency of my ever-more erratic movie reviews, I finally got around to seeing "Brotherhood of the Wolf." For those who don't know, this one is a subtitled french import, apparently based on an actual french folk legend. It is primarily an action film, with a fair bit of suspense/mystery thrown in. So far, it's only playing at a few theatres.
     The story revolves around a pair of men sent in to the french region of Gevaudan in order to help find and stop a mysterious Beast. It is a Beast with a capital "B," because it has been ravaging the countryside for a number of years, killing scores of peasants. And the few survivors of its attacks have been unable to give more than the vaguest of descriptions, often conflicting. The two men are Gregoire de Fronsac, naturalist and libertine, and his blood-brother Mani, a Mohawk holy man.
     The tone of the film is set pretty solidly by the first two scenes. In the first, an unfortunate woman is brutally killed by the unseen Beast. In the second, Fronsac and Mani stumble upon an altercation between a group of thugs and an apparently innocent father and daughter. In a very impressive display of martial arts, Mani proceeds to pound the thugs into the mud, while Fronsac just watches.
     Some of the ads for "Brotherhood of the Wolf" have drawn comparisons between it and "The Matrix," and this first fight scene makes the connection clear. The acrobatic style of the martial arts, combined with constantly changing camera angles and film speeds, create a very distinctive effect. And though I'm normally averse to occidental period films that feature oriental martial arts, this time it worked. The action sequences stayed well within my suspension of disbelief, only crossing the line in the movie's final fight scene, which features an odd segmented sword straight out of some bad kung-fu movie. My ease of belief for most of these scenes was helped by the movie's semi-fantasy style. Although it is basically historical fiction, a few mystical elements leave the "reality" of the movie open to question, and thus open the door for otherwise anachronistic elements. But overall, the fight scenes are well-executed, believable and entertaining, and should serve as an example to the folks who made "The Musketeer."
     But I don't want to make it sound like this is just an action movie. There's also a love story, and a good helping of mystery. Since I am normally so annoyed by movies that seem to tack on the romantic subplot as an afterthought, I like to make a point of giving due credit to those movies, like "Brotherhood of the Wolf," that make the romance an integrated and believable part of the story. The one found here is rather ordinary and predictable, but at least it fits. The mystery, on the other hand, is an important and engaging part of the moive. We start with one big question: "Just what is the Beast?" And before it gets answered, it spins off lots of little questions. And though some of the plot twists are fairly predictable, there is such a profusion of them that it's doubtful you'll guess them all. I was pretty proud of myself for guessing the identity of one of the film's mysterious antagonists very early on, then later downright mortified for not realizing the actual nature of the Beast until it was spelled out at the end.
     One of the reasons the plot twists aren't completely predictable is also one of the film's flaws. Unfortunately, there are a couple of characters and plot elements that just don't go anywhere. This is fairly jarring, because as movie-goers we've come to expect certain things from a film. Based on the quality and quantity of screen-time a character or event receives, we can guess how important it will be as the plot develops. So it leaves a bad taste when this movie devotes its precious screen time (and remember, this is a two hour and forty minute monster) to elements that are later left to die on the vine. The biggest culprits here are the gypsy woman, who appears at key points throuhgout the movie only to die at the end without ever having spoken a memorable word or otherwise advanced the plot, and a dream sequence of Fronsac's about half-way through the film, that presents a great deal of bizarre imagery, ultimately signifying nothing.
     But that's really my only gripe. Otherwise, this is an entertaining film, with great action and an engaging plot. The CG effects were about what I've come to expect at this point: they looked good, but weren't anything special. The characters were well-developed and interesting. The historical aspects - clothing, decor, attitudes, etc. - seemed very well done to my untrained eye. And did I mention that some of the martial arts scenes kick serious booty?
     So "Brotherhood of the Wolf" gets my full recommendation, for what it's worth. The only thing left is for me to be socially responsible and remind those who care that this movie is rated "R," and definitely earns the rating. The filmmakers actually showed a commendable amount of restraint, given that several scenes take place in a french cathouse. But there is still nudity (and gore) to spare. For some of you, of course, this latter warning serves as another recommendation, so don't let me hold you back.



Ocean's 11

     So this is completely new territory for me. It was one thing to go from writing my reviews as e-mails to writing them directly in HTML, but putting pen to paper is an entirely different animal. Not that you can tell the difference, now that I've transcribed it here (and believe me, that was a weird sentence to write). But I just didn't have the time between seeing "Ocean's 11" and leaving for Paris to write this review on computer. But you don't care about that, do you? You just want to hear about the movie.
     Well let me just warn you that this will probably be another short review. Last time I was distracted, but this time my hand will get tired if I drag on too long. Which is exactly what I'm doing with this intro.
     "Ocean's 11" is, first and foremost, a fun movie.
     Now you see, this is why I wrote these things on computer. So that when I write a lead-in sentence like that, and suddenly discover that I have nothing to back it up, I can go back and delete it.
     The important thing here is that the movie is about a bunch of hardened criminals trying to steal an obscene amount of money, but the whole thing is handled with a very light touch. These "hardened criminals" - confidence men, thieves, and hackers - vary from clever and witty to simply insane. So it's pretty easy to forget that these are basically bad guys, and let them be our good guys for a couple of hours instead.
     And like any good heist movie, you can get behind the crooks because they seem to have such a clever plan, and you can't wait to see if, when, and how it's going to go wrong. "Ocean's 11" left me quite pleased in this department. The plan is really cool, and... well... I don't want to give anything away. But there are a good number of entertaining twists along the way, and several opportunities to compete with your friends to see who can figure out what's really happening first. The ending is perhaps a bit too easy. All the same, I couldn't help but like it.      Naturally the film's biggest draw will be the star-studded cast. And there were no disappointments there, either. Okay, so I didn't quite buy Elliot Gould's old-school mobster accent, but everything else was top-rate. It was particularly fun to watch Matt Damon play a role-within-a-role, as his character tries to make it through his first big con job. Most of the other actors got to play this kind of role as well, and all of them were well done.
     And though I'm sure that by now most people have decided that George Clooney and Brad Pitt are serious actors, it bears saying as a prelude to conclusion that there's more to watch than two hours of popular actors looking pretty. "Ocean's 11" is clever and fun throughout, with a few moments that really shine. I could complain that the plot is predictable and Clooney's character, Daniel Ocean, is too smug, but neither complaint would be true enough to really detract from the movie. Consider this a recommendation.



Spy Game

     This ought to be a short one, because I have nothing but kind words to say about "Spy Game." This one is two hours of pure entertainment, with a great balance of guns, girls and cloak and dagger. Basically, it's most everything a spy movie should be.
     The plot of the movie is pretty straightforward. CIA operative Tom Bishop, played by Brad Pitt, gets himself caught during a covert operation that may or may not have been authorized. His mentor, Nathan Muir, played by Robert Redford, seems to be the only one who cares about getting Tom out alive. But really, all of the CIA back-room negotiations that this process entails just give the movie an excuse to be filled with a series of flashbacks. The heart of the film is these flashbacks.
     Over the course of various flashbacks, we learn how our two protagonists met, and of their history as spies. Here we get to see our heroes doing lots of really clever spy stuff, which is why we came to see this movie. And all of the spy stuff in "Spy Game" is of the clever and subtle sort, rather than the high-tech, explosive sort that has showed up in Hollywood's more recent spy offerings.
     And, well, I said this would be short. "Spy Game" is clever and fun, and a great example of the spy genre. Certainly worth seeing. All of the actors perform admirably, and they're really nothing worth complaining about in this one. So what more do you want me to say? It was good, go see it.



Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone

     To make my job easier, kindly place yourself in one of two groups before reading this review. You are either a person who has read "Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone," or you aren't. Those in the former group can probably stop reading after the second paragraph. Those in the second group can probably skip straight ahead, to where my job gets a bit tougher.
     This part is easy, because I don't need to tell you whether you'll like the movie or not. The motion picture rendition of "Harry Potter" is exactly like the book; so whatever opinion you hold of the one will apply equally to the other. A few minor cuts were made, presumably to cut short the already bloated run time, but none that really mattered. Hagrid gets to spend less time with his dragon, and Harry has two or three fewer challenges to face at the climax, but those were the biggest cuts. Everything else was nearly word for word, so don't expect any surprises.
     For both those who've read the book and those who haven't, the best thing about "Harry Potter," the movie, is the special effects. They are quite well done, and just about perfectly capture the fanciful imagery of J. K. Rowling's writing. If special effects keep getting better and better like this, I'm going to start taking them for granted. In all but a few scenes, the CGFX were seamless.
     Now comes the hard part: Reviewing this movie for everyone who is not already a slavish "Harry Potter" fan. Because this movie neither rocked my world, nor did it turn my stomach. It was light, and palatable, but didn't reall inspire any great depths of analysis. But I suppose I can't just leave you with a review that amounts to "Eh, it was okay." Or at least if I do, I need to use a lot more words.
     From the start, you need to remember that this is definitely a kids' movie. The plot is simple, and nothing you haven't seen before (life is unfair for young kid until he embarks on a magical adventure). Certain plot points are creative, but others really don't stand up to any kind of examination (I won't give anything away, but if you see it, think about the end and what would have happened if Harry hadn't been there at all). The names of people and things are all a bit silly ("muggle," "hufflepuff"), and many of the magical equivalents to mundane entities are ultimately pointless (such as the many arcane rules to the game of "Quidditch," which boil down to an aerial game of "fetch"). All together, they give you the kind of story a preteen will love, because it is the kind of story a preteen would write. Not that any of this is necessarily bad, but it's something to keep in mind.
     Given that "Harry Potter" has such a large, ready-made fanbase from the books, you'd think that the dazzling special effects would be all they would need to produce a blockbuster. So I was surprised to see the considerable acting talent thrown at this movie. Richard Harris; Alan Rickman; John Hurt; John Cleese; Robbie Coltrane... these famous faces add quite a bit of class and screen presence to the film. Almost enough to make up for those times when the younger actors stumble over or mumble through their lines.
     And that's all there really is to say. "Harry Potter" is a kids' movie with great effects, and a surprising range of actors. It's fun, as long as you don't expect too much out of it. And if you've read the book, you don't need me to tell you whether or not to see the movie. My work here is done.



The Musketeer

     This review is a complete turnaround from my last, where I experienced hours of painful writer's block. The reason for the change is that this time, my head is chock-full of different ways to pan the awful, awful movie that was "The Musketeer." The only trouble should be deciding which criticisms to include so that this review isn't reduced to a disordered brain-dump of insults.
     "The Musketeer" is, theoretically, a retelling of the classic "Three Musketeers" story. We meet D'Artagnan, a young boy who wishes to be a great musketeer like his father. He becomes even more determined to reach this goal after watching his parents be brutally murdered by Febre, former musketeer turned evil henchman of Cardinal Richelieu. Fourteen years later, the young D'Artagnan has grown into a man (while all others show no sign of further age), and is able to realize his dream of joining the king's famous guard, the musketeers. Of course, in doing so, he must progress through a predictable and stale plot about saving France's royalty from the machinations of a power-hungry Richelieu, and ultimately gaining revenge against Febre. Oh, and falling in love with the prettiest chambermaid-who-just-happens-to-be-the-queen's-close-friend in all of France.
     Tim Roth's acting talents are completely wasted on Febre, who is a cardboard cut-out despicable villain. Febre wanders around killing innocents and threatening damsels, promoting armageddon, and of course killing his own men when they fail. All without the slightest hint of motivation beyond an implied love of murder. So lacking is Febre in any kind of believable basis that eventually the writers just gave up; and in the latter portion of the movie everyone just starts saying Febre is a "madman."
     And the sad thing is, I can spend that much time talking about Febre because he's still the most interesting character in "The Musketeer." The musketeers themselves - Aramis, Porthos, and Athos - are decent back-up characters, but none gets enough screen time to save this film. D'Artagnan, his love interest Francesca, and Cardinal Richilieu are the main players in this movie, and they're just plain boring.
     Add to this that throughout the film are numerous little loopholes and contrivances that strain suspension of disbelief well past breaking. For instance, in one scene towrd the end of the movie, D'Artagnan approaches a tavern-full of drunken musketeers to ask their help. They refuse before he can explain exactly what kind of help he needs, which is understandable since D'Artagnan has spent the last half-hour abandoning them for secret missions and lakeside love-ins. But then the musketeers, who I must repeat don't know why D'Artagnan needs them, begin telling him why his plan doesn't concern them. It was a jarring misstep in continuity, made worse by D'Artagnan's immediately following speech from a high horse. And then there's the baffling grappling-hook gun and hand grenade that our heroes pull from hammerspace in the middle of a big fight scene. I nearly reevaluated the entire movie as a comedy from that point on, but it just wasn't funny enough.
     And what about those fight scenes? Surely, the choreography by famous Xin Xin Xiong would pull this movie out of the toilet? Well here's my take on it: If you remember my review of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", you'll know that I enjoy high-flying, over-the-top kung-fu action, as long as I've prepared myself for it. And I can do that, when I'm going to go see a kung-fu movie. I can also get into it for cases like "The Matrix," which was a science fiction film where the basic premise was that the characters could bend the rules of reality. But I just can't make myself believe these kinds of wire-flying martial arts hijinks in a European historical fiction piece. Instead of being cool, the fight scenes came out goofy. I somehow doubt that any musketeer ever had the training to fight four men while suspending himself between the rafters of an inn. The worst offender is the penultimate fight scene, in which D'Artagnan and several of Febre's men fight a hundred feet in the air, suspended from ropes (as a result of the aforementioned grappling-hook gun). For some reason this worked when it was Lara Croft and Illuminati agents fighting through the upper reaches of her mansion, but seemed really lame when it was musketeers bouncing off the side of a castle. And the infuriating fact that no one ever seemed to think to cut each other's ropes.
     So I think you get the point here. Just in case, let me drive it home a little more (also, just in case you skipped to the end like some people I know). This was almost a much shorter review, because we almost walked out of the movie half way through the first fight scene, about ten minutes into the film. Yes, "The Musketeer" is that bad.



Apocalypse Now Redux

     Okay, so I'm having a really hard time with this one. I saw the rereleased, remastered, and extended version of "Apocalypse Now" last Wednesday, and as you can see it's taken me quite a while to get this review out. And not for lack of trying. I just deleted the first three paragraphs because they were going nowhere. And that's the first time I've ever had to do that with one of these.
     Part of the problem is that it's very daunting to review a movie that is already a classic in many people's eyes. What can I say without contradicting opinions someone has held of this movie since I was in diapers? And the other thing is that this movie is so chock-full of philosphical undercurrents that it is a bit hard to know ehere to start.      But I guess I can proceed more or less as normal and at least outline the plot for those who've lived under a rock for the past two decades. "Apocalypse Now" is set in the midst of the Vietnam War, and follows the path of an American special forces/black ops officer (Martin Sheen) sent on a mission deep through enemy territory to assassintae a renegade officer (Marlon Brando). Laced throughout is a great deal of commentary on war, the men who fight it, and the men who instigate it.
     The two words I've used most in conjunction with "Apocalypse Now" are "surreal" and "grim." "Surreal" because many of the scenes are just completely bizarre, and the characters tend to verge on insanity (when they don't cross over the line completely, that is). "Grim" because this is, after all, a stroy set in the middle of a war, and they don't let you forget it. The battle scenes are brutal, ugly affairs, and even outside of combat many of the troops have come to live like animals.
     But don't get me wrong; for all the darkness and madness, I liked this movie. I could probably watch it a hundred times and still not squeeze everything out of it. Although it does get slow at points (particularly the long, sluggish plantation sequence), this is more or less what you should expect from a movie that is much more about ideas than action.
     And then there are those classic lines of dialogue and cinematic moments that have been echoed through the years, but somehow still hit hard when seen in their proper place. The helicopter attack set to "Ride of the Valkyrie." Our first glimpses of Colonel Kurtz, his face covered in shadow. And, of course, "Charlie don't surf!" It's just one of those ineffable filmmaking mysteries that these scenes and lines strike such a deep chord, despite the years that have passed since their writing.
     The truth is, I've barely scratched the surface here. There is much more to say about "Apocalypse Now," but I'm in no postion to say it now. It's a good, very deep movie, and bears watching, whether this will be your first time or your hundredth. As long as you can bear the violence, insanity, depression, and occasional nudity, this one is worth the whopping three and a half hours.



Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

     Stop me if you've heard this one. Or at least skip to the next paragraph. I'm standing outside the theatre talking to my friend Jim, waiting for the rest of the gang to show up for our viewing of "Dungeons & Dragons." Jim and I are talking about computer animation, and I complain that it just isn't up to snuff yet, and certainly nowhere near ready for the task of representing humans on screen. Minutes later, we're in the theatre, the lights are down, and the reviews are playing. On screen, a woman stands alone on a barren, broken plain, speaking of the dark secret that lurks inside of her. Not until the preview is half way through do I realize that the woman is 100% CGI. That was my first glimpse of "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within," and more than enough to get me into the theatre.
     Obviously I have to begin by dealing with "Final Fantasy's" biggest claim to fame - that it is a 100% computer animated feature film, done in a completely realistic style (unlike previous CGI features such as "Toy Story"). This one fact overshadows all other aspects of the film, to the point where it is difficult to say how this movie would review had it been live-action. The animation is, as you would expect, excellent. Attention was clearly lavished on the details, such that even complicated entities like hair and feathers have realistic appearance and behavior. Humans walk like humans, skin looks like skin, and eyes are appropriately moist and reflective. Yes, you can still tell that the characters are computer generated. But if you stop thinking about it, it's pretty easy to forget.
     And as with most modern CGI, the animation is flawless when it comes to technology and aliens. The hard-edged space ships and translucent alien bad guys are both completely believeable, due in part to the fact that they have no real-world counterparts for us to compare them against. These are entities that most modern movies would do as CG anyhow, but within the context of an all-CG film, they become completely seamless.
     On a related note, I have to take a moment to praise the mechanical design that went into "Final Fantasy." As a sci-fi movie, it features all manner of space ships, aircraft, ATVs, weapons, and armor. And all of it looks very good. Of particular note is the contrast between the sharp, clean lines of most of the human technology, and the curving, organic look of the alien "phantoms." Although I suppose the phantoms don't qualify as "mechanical" design, they are also very well done, so I'm mentioning them here. The twin design philosophies complement each other well, and make up a large portion of the movie's visual appeal.
     The good news is that, for all of the attention paid to the animation, the other facets of "Final Fantasy" were not completely ignored. The plot, while somewhat formulaic, still manages to hold a couple of nice surprises. The characters seem one-dimensional at first, but show at least a little depth when you scratch the surface. And the love story is blissfully uncomplicated. All of these would tend to make for a rather plain movie under most circumstances, but somehow it all works.
     Because I'm basically a sci-fi geek, I'm going to take a moment to address the science fiction trappings of "Final Fantasy." It's always annoying when a sci-fi movie screws up by not maintaining any kind of internal logic to the new technologies featured, or by blatantly disregarding the laws of physics without even an attempt at an excuse. So it was very pleasing to see a movie that didn't make any of those mistakes. All of the more traditional sci-fi elements, like the zero-G scenes, were handled very well (admittedly much easier to do when it's animation). Moreover, the wholly invented "bio-etheric" technology was presented and used in a logical and consistent manner. Those aspects of "Final Fantasy's" future world that were not directly explained were not hard to figure out from the context, and the whole formed a believable and just generally cool science fiction environment.
     I have decided that there is a little something weird about well-known screen actors providing voices for animated features. You constantly find yourself thinking that you're just not looking at the right face for the voice you're hearing. Never was this more the case then listening to Steve Buscemi's voice during "Final Fantasy." I'm pretty sure the character he voiced was just too normal-looking to belong to that voice. In fact, I'm not convinced that any face will fit that voice except for that of Steve Buscemi. But when I wasn't being distracted by that little detail, the voice acting was well done. In some cases this was no big feat, as for instance Buscemi played the same character in this movie as he does in every other: Steve Buscemi. But in other cases, the acting was noteworthy. This actually brings up one of the few shortcomings of the computer-generated characters in this film. There were some scenes where the characters' voices were rich with emotion, but their faces were comparitively bland. By the same token, I doubt James Woods would have managed to maintain the deep scowl which General Hein sports in nearly every scene that he appears.
     By now I have hopefully heaped enough praise on this movie; now it's your job to go out and see it. of course, this is all only my opinion, but I think that this one is better than any of the "summer blockbusters" so far this year. Particularly if you're the big sci-fi fan that I am. And as a final note: some of you may be wondering why I never once brought up the "Final Fantasy" series of computer games which somehow spawned this film. The reason is that as far as I can tell there is no connection. Whether you're a hard-core fan of the series, or have never even heard of it, neither will effect your enjoyment of this movie one bit.



Tomb Raider

     Looking at the promos, and even the movie itself, I suppose the correct title is actually "Lara Croft Tomb Raider." But somehow that just doesn't roll off the tongue quite so easily. In any case, yet another summer-action-brain-candy-blockbuster has hit the screen, and it is my job to review it. Well, not my job, unless you know somebody who will pay me for this, but I digress.
     Since I've played one of the "Tomb Raider" video games (although I didn't win it before lending it to Dale Edwards and never seeing it again), I figure I'm eminently qualified to review this movie. In fact, it's quite gratifying to realize that many of the things I knew I wanted to say about the movie did not change one bit after I saw it. Basically, there are certain differences that experienced "Tomb Raider" players should expect to adjust to when viewing the movie. Much to your surprise, at no point is Lara Croft crushed by a falling boulder. Nor is she ever impaled by spikes, shot to death, drowned, or mauled by tigers. As a point of fact, she is never senselessly attacked by any wildlife, whatsoever. In retrosepct, perhaps these very odd filmmaking choices were what moved the producers to add Lara's name to the title, just to make it clear to the viewer that yes, even if she never runs into a wall or falls off a ledge, this is the same Tomb Raider you thought it was.
     It could very well be that I am entirely to blame for not really liking this movie. In the same vein as "The Mummy Returns," you really don't want to watch "Tomb Raider" with any of your higher logic centers active. But try as I might, I just couldn't generate the massive suspension of disbelief that the movie required.
     Now don't get me wrong; I don't think I was being overly picky this time. I can dig animated monkey statues that protect hidden treasure. And I'll accept killer robots that serve no other purpose than to act as training toys. Much as it pains me, I can even enjoy important world events that hinge on planetary alignments, and mysterious triangles that control time. But I just can't accept it when heroes, villains, and entire civilizations act like idiots. I mean really, if you are trying to rid the world of a horrible evil, don't just break it in half and hide the pieces. And especially don't create a special key that can unlock the hiding places (even if it does have to be used in conjunction with super computers, radio telescopes, calculus, and similar things your primitve culture hasn't developed yet). Smash the damn thing into dust, instead! And just once I'd like to see some idiot put down his gun so the villain and the hero can end the movie with a fistfight, and get shot in the head for suggesting the notion.
     What else can I say? Of course there's lots of action to be had, including a fairly clever wire-suspended fight scene. Lara Croft is played by Angelina Jolie's breasts, although there is some question as to whether she has been augmented by supportive undergarments. In the movie's other clever moment, Lara Croft's father is played by Jolie's real father, Jon Voight. And those are about the best things I can say about "Tomb Raider."
     So unless you really have the need to see Angelina Jolie in some serious PG action, and have $8 burning a whole in your pocket, then give this one a miss. Maybe next time someone will put a modicum of effort into developing a half-decent framework for special effects and fistfights. If not, I have some rentals I can recommend.



O Brother, Where Art Thou?

     I'll start this review by voicing my one and only regret. That is to say, my one and only regret with regard to this review. I wish that sometime prior to seeing "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (preferably immediately prior) I'd read Homer's "Odyssey." Because as you may or may not know, that is the story upon which "O Brother" is based. And if I had the proper literary background, I'd have been able to draw many more connections between epic poem and movie.
     As is, I know enough to state that this movie is only loosely based on the epic. For instance, our hero Ulysses is not tremendously strong military leader at the end of a brutal campaign, but a fast-talking escaped convict with a penchant for hair care. The Sirens and the Cyclops, two of the more easily identifiable allegories to Homer's epic, are both considerably different from the stories that I know. These differences, combined with a variety of small changes in the name, number, and gender of various characters leads me to conclude that this movie is at best "inspired by" the original poem.
     On the other hand, my purpose here really isn't to perform detailed literary analysis, amusing a pastime as that may be. My job is to tell you whether or not the movie was any good, and why. The answer to the first part, this time, is that the movie was good. The answer to the second part, as usual, must be sifted out from the jumble of words that comprises this review.
     As seems to the norm for Coen brothers films, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" is funny in a very quirky, offbeat way. And the characters, despite (or perhaps because of) their idiosyncrasies, come across as very human. This tends to make it hard to decide whether you're watching a comedy or a drama. And that's a good thing. Because what you're really watching is just a story; one that wraps you up too well for you to spend time with classification. This is what I want out of a movie, and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" provides.
     I suppose I should probably mention some details of the movie's plot, given that it does differ so significantly from the "Odyssey." The film is set in depression-era Mississippi, and our heroes, as I mentioned, are escaped convicts. Their strange journeys bring them into contact with both lawmen and criminals, as you might expect. But they also become entangled in a gubernatorial race, the KKK, and the production of "old-timey" music. For you blues fans, the old crossroads legend even makes an appearance. Much of this weirdness probably links up in some way to the "Odyssey," but the connections were a bit too subtle for me.
     I'm running out of steam here, so I think I'll just let this one stand. This movie's a good one, at least if you like the offbeat kind of humor the Coens are known for. And I'm pretty sure that as of this writing it's still playing in some theatres. At the very least, the San Diegans among you can catch it in July at the Ken (I think). And yes, you can take that as my recommendation to do so.



Bridget Jones's Diary

     I think I'm beginning to get the hang of this movie review thing. However, there's one definite problem I'm beginning to notice. Unless a movie is noticeably bad or very good, I tend not to have a whole lot to say about it, and the review ends up pretty short (that, or when the computer crashes after hours of brilliant analysis; I'm still bitter about that one). Such is the case with "Bridget Jones's Diary." It was a cute movie, and I liked it, and there's not much else to say. Now watch me blabber on for several paragraphs anyway.
     The movie tells the story of a young English woman who is not very happy with her life. The story takes place over the course of a single year, and is told as excerpts from the titular diary. Although there is an overarching plot that follows Bridget Jones's search for love, much of the film's time is spent meandering through the ups and downs of her family, friends, and career. The package as a whole is a brief window into one woman's life.
     About the only bad thing I can say with regard to this movie is that it was predictable. But since it was a heartwarming romantic comedy and not a suspense thriller, I think we can let this one slide.
     Renee Zellweger plays Bridget Jones, and to my untrained American ear, delivers a convincing English accent. Hugh Grant, as Bridget's boss Daniel Cleaver, naturally gets no commendation for his accent. But I was pleasantly surprised to see that Grant was not simply playing the same role he has played in every other movie. Instead of the stammering, shy, innocent male lead, this time Grant played the part of a suave, silver-tongued ne'er-do-well. It was a nice change, and convincing to boot.
     Maybe I'm just tired, but I think that's really all there is to it. For once you last-paragraph-hoppers get a significant share of the deal. "Bridget Jones's Diary" was cute and funny; romantic and fun; and of course very English. I'd say go see it while it's still in theatres, but it will hold up just fine as a rental, as well.



The Mummy Returns

     The way I see it, there are only two good reasons for a story to have a sequel. The first, of course, is that there is still more story to tell. The second reason for a sequel is that the first incarnation was just so darn good that the audience wants more of the same. The usual Hollywood reasoning: "The first one made lots of money," while closely related to number two, doesn't really cut it in my book.
     If you saw "The Mummy," then you know that there's nothing more to tell as far as that story goes. So if you think like me, you'll only want to see the sequel if you liked the first one, and you're hoping for more. And I'm here to tell you that that is exactly what your $8.50 will buy you - another two hours of fast-paced, mummy-blastin', creepy-crawly fun.
     "The Mummy Returns" takes place several years after the first movie; long enough for our heroes Rick and Evelyn to have gotten hitched and produced for themselves a precocious young son. But just like "The Mummy," the movie actually begins in ancient Egypt, where we learn of the Scorpion King, a mighty warrior who's reign of terror, death, and jackal-headed soldiers is ended only by his untimely demise.
     Within probably fifteen minutes of the opening credits, having had just enough time to return to the movie's "present day" and introduce the principle good guys and bad guys, the action begins with earnest. And as you may expect if you saw the first one, it doesn't let up until it's time for the end credits to roll. Except this time it's even faster and louder.
     To put it simply, if you liked "The Mummy," then you'll probably like "The Mummy Returns." Just turn your brain off, sit back, and enjoy the ride. Because if you can't stop yourself from analyzing it, then your bound to enjoy this movie less.
     I was mostly able to do just what I now advise, so I'll spare you a laundry list of the movie's flaws. The only thing that really got to me is that it was defnitely goofier than the first one. Things like the rocket-powered zeppelin and the Matrix-style kung-fu just rubbed me the wrong way, as did the wholly unnecessary subplot that establishes Rick as some kind of predestined saviour. Isn't it enough that he's the good guy, and will save the world because that's where he keeps all his stuff?
     But like I said, if you don't think about it too hard, it's just plain fun. The effects are good, the monsters are creepy, and the bad guys all get their just desserts. I was particularly pleased that all of our favorite characters returned from the first film, and all remained true to form. It usually bugs me when characters, often lacking depth to begin with, are reduced to mere caricatures of themsleves for the sequel. So I'm happy to say that all of the returning characters remained exactly as they should (and actually, showed an impressive amount of depth for such a piece of fluff).
     So there you have it. More of the same, but I'm not complaining. If that's what you're looking for in a movie, then go see it, and it'll tide you over until "Pearl Harbor" comes out. That, and you win the "no-prize" if you can spot the "Dr. Strangelove" reference.



Enemy At the Gates

     Though I may not be the history buff that some of my friends are, I'm still a sucker for a good war movie. So even after lukewarm reviews, I was interested in seeing "Enemy At the Gates."
     I enjoyed this movie, but perhaps not in the usual sense. I was not entertained so much as fascinated. To me, this movie seemed more like watching a documentary, or something on the History Channel. Instead of becoming particularly interested in the plot or characters, I found myself watching the details of the battle for Stalingrad, and wondering how close to the truth it came. And it was a morbid fascination.
     The best way to describe the setting of this movie is grim. From the very first scene, in which we see soldiers being locked into a train car on its way to the front, it is plain that this will not be a pretty picture of war. And sure enough, the remainder of the film is chock full of gritty, depressing detail. Always in the background lie the bombed out ruins of Stalingrad, casually littered with corpses. The soldiers who still live are dirty and wounded, and project a constant sense of desperation. Those who die, do so messily.
     Off the battlefield, the ugliness is a bit more subtle, but no less prevalent. For all that the uniforms are cleaner and the wounds better bandaged, the scenes that take place at various Soviet headquarters show conditions that are no less dangerous, and no less desperate. Heroism and bravery may take center stage in the dialogue, but the background details leave no doubt that war is an ugly, hateful thing.
     The story, such as it is, revolves around a young sniper who brings hope to the defenders of Stalingrad. Such is his impact on the balance of power in the city that the Germans send their own top sniper to deal with the threat. Weaving through this plot of dueling snipers is a love triangle, consisting of Vassili, the aforementioned Russian sniper; Danilov, the political officer who helps promote Vassili as a hero of the Republic; and Tania, the beautiful and intelligent Russian soldier (that several women are shown in the Soviet army, at least amongst the snipers, is a further testament to the grim state of the war). Both plots follow fairly predictable routes. The biggest surprises are actually in store for those who already know the historical anecdote on which "Enemy At the Gates" is based. Although I don't know every point in which the movie diverges from fact, I know that there are several, particularly near the end.
     I haven't painted a particularly glowing picture of this movie, nor did I intend to. Like I said at the start, the plot somehow failed to catch my attention. The special effects are very good, although this frequently means very bloody. The acting is solid, although the only real outstanding performance comes from Ron Perlman, as an experienced Russian sniper who aids Vassili for a brief portion of them film. In general, the only times the actors drew my attention away from the background was when it came time to voice some out of place opinion, such as Danilov's inevitable anti-socialist monologue at the end.
     But having said all this, I'll also repeat my original assertion that I enjoyed the movie. It may not have been the greatest by any stretch of the imagination, but it was powerful in its own way, and had several good moments. It's not a "must see," but I'm glad I didn't miss it.



Hannibal

     Not counting "The Grinch," which was an entirely different case altogether, "Hannibal" represents the first movie I've reviewed having read the book first. So let me just begin by saying that it's difficult to review this movie without constantly comparing it to the novel. I think instead that I will just say whatever comes to mind, including both my attempts to review the film in isolation, and in contrast to the text.
     First comes the warning. If you've heard about "Hannibal" at all, you've probably heard that it is very gory. After all of the hype, I was actually surprised to find that there was not as much violence as I had expected. However, what this movie lacks in quantity it makes up in qulaity. The bloodier scenes in "Hannibal" are quite graphic, leaving little or nothing to the imagination. This is definitely not a movie for children, nor some adults.
     I'll try not to give too much away here in my plot summary, but there are some points I feel are pertinent. Despite the way the ads make it appear, "Hannibal" is not about the evil Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter hunting idealistic FBI agent Clarice Starling. Rather it concerns one of Hannibal's original victims (the only one to survive) and his twisted plot for vengeance. This has the rather bizarre effect of making Dr. Lecter one of the movie's protagonists.
     This last point deserves a bit of examination, because it may make or break your enjoyment of the movie. In "Silence of the Lambs," Hannibal Lecter plays an odd role, alternately helping and hindering our heroine. He is thus free to be unrepentantly evil - we can love to hate him, and it doesn't take away from our investment in the story. But now we have Hannibal as a major mover and shaker in the plot, sharing equal portions of the spotlight with Starling. This can be difficult to handle at times. Although eerily charming, Lecter is still at heart an evil man, arguably more so than his antagonists. Ultimately I was able to enjoy the movie, despite not really knowing who I was supposed to be rooting for.
     Of course a big part of what makes Lecter so damnably likeable is the excellent work of Anthony Hopkins. While his performance was perhaps not quite up to the level formerly displayed in "Silence of the Lambs," there was really no room for complaint.
     On a related note, Julianne Moore took over the role of Clarice Starling, formerly played by Jodi Foster. Moore proves up to the challenge, although I doubt she'll be bringing home an Oscar for it.
     For the most part, the plot of "Hannibal" translated well from page to screen. At several points I was impressed at how an entire chapter's worth of exposition was reduced to only one or two short scenes in the film. On the other hand, some of the shortcuts necessitated in moving from book to movie may leave the audience confused. There were a couple of plot points that I understood well from the book, but that were glossed over very quickly, if not altered significantly, in the film. These, I felt, may not have been well enough explained, and may leave you asking "what was that all about?"
     The biggest difference between book and movie comes at the end. In fact, feel free to skip this paragraph if you haven't read the book. To put it as vaguely as possible, the movie's end is much easier to stomach than that of the book. At the same time, it manages to mesh quite well with the rest of the story, despite being a brand-new addition. In particular, the climactic interaction between Lecter and Starling feels very much right. Starling's actions there fit her character perfectly. How characterful Lecter's actions are is open to debate, and I will just have to leave it at that.
     Hello again to those of you who skipped the last paragraph or otherwise decided to jump to the end. Yes, this is the part where I sum things up and say goodbye. So in summary, it was a pretty good movie. Sadly it dwells within the shadow of "Silence of the Lambs" and its own source novel. But it still manages to stand on its own and provide two and a half hours of entertainment that go by surprisingly fast. There's the review, and bye for now.



Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

     After a great deal of anticipation, I finally got out to see "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." If you, like a certain sister-in-law of mine, are too lazy to read the rest of this review, then I'll sum it all up for you now - I loved it. For the rest of you brave souls, the verbose version follows.
     Let me start with a couple of warnings. There are a couple of things about this movie that, while I don't think they detract anything from it, may prevent you from fully enjoying things if you don't come forewarned. My first warning is that this movie is in Chinese. If you do not speak Chinese, you should be prepared to spend two hours reading all of the dialogue from the bottom of the screen. This is not really such a bad thing, although it does tend to draw one's attention away from all of the visual delights that tend to occupy the rest of the screen. My second warning is that this is very much a kung-fu movie. Which is to say that it is not a Bruce Lee movie, or a Jackie Chan movie, but a magic-sword, thirty-foot-flying-kick, ancient-monk-training, wacky fantasy kung-fu movie. Remember this, and enjoy the film in its intended spirit.
     And since this is at heart an action movie, your first question will probably be "How are the fight scenes?" At first, it was a little hard to take the fights seriously. With the combatants bouncing off walls, leaping from rooftop to rooftop, and generally exhibiting supernatural prowess, I wasn't sure whether or not to laugh. If this had been the typical, low-budget kung-fu fare, I no doubt would have. But somehow, watching the fights play out with absolute sincerity, I found the smirk had left my face. Supernatural or not, the film's fights are breathtaking, and follow an internal logic that eases the way for your suspension of disbelief. Each combat is beautifully choreographed, and resembles a complicated dance as much as a battle to the death. Moreover, we are treated to a great variety of interesting settings for the fights, from such traditional scenarios as the tavern brawl and the training-room duel, to a uniquely bizarre fight in the treetops. These changes of venue keep the fight scenes fresh and interesting, and allow for the display of a broad range of strange techniques and weapons.
     Having got the important bits out of the way, allow me to take a step back and outline the plot. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is about a magical sword, but is equally about not being about that magical sword. Legendary hero and master of "Wudan" martial-arts, Li Mu Bai, possesses the ancient blade "Green Destiny." But Li Mu Bai has decided to give up the warrior's life, and asks his longtime friend Yui Hsui Lien to carry the sword to Peking for safe-keeping. When the Green Destiny is stolen, all signs point to the hand of Jade Fox, Li Mu Bai's most hated enemy. And so Li Mu Bai must return to the path of the warrior, and with the help of Yui Hsui Lien attempt to recover the sword and finally avenge himself upon Jade Fox.
     Also very central to things (but I'm not telling how) is Jen, young daughter of the local governor. Jen is the most complex and conflicted character in this film, and thus the most ripe for in-depth analysis. My take is that Jen's primary motivating factor is rebellion against a life of restriction. Having been told what to do all her life, and never having been asked what she wants, she now rejects any attempts to control her destiny. I think this pretty well handles all of her strange behavior, from her first scene to her last. But that's enough about this subject; I'd rather not give any more away, nor try too hard to force my interpretation of things on you.
     Overall, the plot is actually very simple, and avoids distracting the audience from the fight scenes. But it also holds a few surprises, and turns out to be independently engaging, so that you don't find yourself simply waiting out the breaks between battles. This simple, earnest plotline is one of the major factors that puts "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" head and shoulders above any other kung-fu movie I've seen.
     Long-time readers may have noted my general contempt for romantic subplots tacked on to action movies. This film represents a refreshing break from that annoyance - notbecause it lacks romance, but because it is handled well. The romantic subplots in this movie are once again quite simple. One is obvious, the other predictable, and both are classic. The difference between "classic" and "cliched," in this case, is in the execution. The romances are woven tightly into the overall plot, and are delivered with such sincerity that I just couldn't help enjoying them.
     This would normally be the part where I talk about the actors, and the wonderful/mediocre/dreadful performances they gave. Unfortunately, the fact that this film was subtitled meant that I could make no judgement about the actors' line delivery. But as far as I could tell, all of the performances were solid. Chow Yun Fat (Li Mu Bai), Michelle Yeoh (Yui Hsui Lien), and Zhang Zi Yi (Jen) all get plenty of screen time, and ample opportunity for wordless communication. And all three show great aptitude here. Chang Chen, playing desert-raider Lo, also deserves some praise here. His performance comes through despite the language barrier, so I figure that must be pretty good.
     I think up to this point I've covered all my bases with the exception of scenery. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" has a smorgasbord of beautiful settings, and wonderful costumes and props to match. Both the finely detailed interior sets and the gorgeous Chinese wilderness make for great eye candy. An early overhead shot of Peking left me all tingly at the grand scope and beauty of it. As I said before, this is one of the main drawbacks of the subtitles: every moment you spend reading them is a lost moment for gaping at the sets.
     If you think you can handle the subtitles and the superhuman kung-fu action, then see this movie. It is a really genuinely well-done action film, that for once manages to mesh all of its non-action elements into a seamless whole. Have I said enough good things about it yet? Go see it! (Those who have already seen "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" are exempt from my commands. The rest of you are required to do as I say.)



Cast Away

     The way I figured it, after seeing the previews for "Cast Away," I'd basically seen the whole movie. And that was almost true. Nonetheless, it turned out to be well worth seeing.
     Since the previews reveal as much, I won't feel to bad about laying out the plot right here. Tom Hanks plays a FedEx employee who is called away from his fiancee to help with an international delivery on Christmas eve. The plane goes down over the Pacific, and Hanks washes up on an uninhabited island as the sole survivor. What follows is his struggle for survival, and for escape, and eventually for direction amidst the ruins of a shattered life.
     Most of the movie is spent on the island, and this proves to be extremely engrossing. Each of the protagonist's achievements comes after a great effort, and his overall progress seems to mirror the very development of civilization. This is no "Gilligan's Island," with coconut radios and bamboo bicycles; a decent fire and some rough rope represent the highlights of technology for the titular castaway.
     The thing is, there's really not much to this movie. Most of the time, we're just watching Hanks eat, sleep, and bleed. But for some reason, it's all very cool. It's a bit frustrating for me, not being able to pin down just what is so good about this movie. But it is good, and I guess I'll just have to leave it at that.
     I can say a little more about the tail end of the movie, although here I have to skirt around giving anything away. But I really enjoyed the sequence of events following the protagaonist's inevitable rescue. The filmmakers made some relatively brave choices in this part of the movie, and they paid off. What we end up with is not a movie with a neatly-packaged happy ending. Nor is it in any real way a downer. Instead, the ending is just about perfect, even if it does leave you wondering.



Vertical Limit

     I never had any intention of seeing this movie, and I still don't. But sources tell me that this movie is bad - possibly the worst movie of the year. You have been warned.



Dungeons & Dragons

     For those who don't already know, let me share with you the fact that I am essentially a big geek. Not the glass-eating, circus freak variety; but the glasses-wearing, ComiCon kind. My favorite books and movies are science fiction, I paint little toy soldiers for wargames, I constantly battle with my computer to make it play the latest games, and I even watch Star Trek from time to time. But what is relevant here, and what forced this confession, is that I play Dungeons & Dragons. I played it when I was young, and do so to this day.
     And so when the first trailers for "Dungeons & Dragons," the movie, hit the screen, and the rumors I'd been hearing for so many years turned out to be true, I knew I would have to see this movie. Despite that the trailers already had me cringing at the thought of just how bad the movie could be, I almost had an obligation to see it.
     That's what brought me to the Hazard Center UA theater last night, to watch a movie go from zero to trite in under ten seconds. I don't think that the title had even appeared on screen yet when the audience was told of the land of Izmer, where mages rule and commoners are little better than slaves, but the noble young empress wants to change all that and bring equality, but the evil Profion has other plans. And it went downhill from there.
     From that auspicious beginning unfolded a plot which only failed to be entirely predictable when it delved into the realm of the completely arbitrary. For instance, the principal participants in the film's industry-mandated romantic subplot are obvious from the first moment they share screen time. Because we've all heard less dorky versions of the line "I'd have to cast a feeblemind spell on myself to be attracted to you" before, and it always ended in romance in those movies. And no one was surprised when the villainous Damodar promised one thing, and then did another. Now I'll warn you that I'm about to give away stuff about the movie, because it was bad and I don't really care. Because I was surprised when they killed the Wayans brother (more on him later), but not surprised in the least when they brought him back in the end.
     But like I said, there were moments when I had no idea what was coming next. I could not have predicted that, after declaring that their fallen comrade had returned, the characters would all link hands, dissolve into glowing dust, and fly off screen to make way for the credits. Nor did I expect the evil Damodar to extract information from a damsel in distress by inexplicably extending parasitic tentacles from his ears and sucking the knowledge from her brain. Or how about the titular "dungeon" sequence, in which our hero must walk alone through scary green lights, fall through a trap door, and quickly find himself in a room full of treasure guarded only by a friendly, talking skeleton.
     One of the shames of this movie was the waste of acting talent - or more accurately, the perversion of it. As Profion, the main bad guy and power behind slow-talking, blue-lipsticked Damodar, Jeremy Irons filled every scene he could get his hands on with bug-eyed anger self-satisfied evil. I don't think he took four steps at a time without striking some kind of evil pose. Not that this wasn't entertaining after a fashion, but I hope that Mr. Irons didn't mean for us to take it seriously.
     More shocking and confusing was the performance of Thora Birch, who I quite enjoyed in "American Beauty." Since then she seems to have used some kind of evil time machine to make her look several years younger and lose all of her acting talent. As the empress Savina, she shuffles through her scenes in what looks like a daze, delivering most of her lines with all the emotion of a trout.
     I'm going to skip a critique of the performances of the main characters, except to say that both Justin Whalin and Zoe McLellan (as thief Ridley and mage Marina, respectively) did not really strike me one way or another. This leaves me more time to complain about Marlon Wayans as the shuffling, bumbling, whining, NAACP-lawsuit-waiting-to-happen thief Snails. His role was to provide comic relief roughly on the level of Jar-Jar Binks, more or less ensuring that the movie would come out looking like a cross between "Xena: Warrior Princess" and everything else on the WB. As with the so-called "comic relief" of the aforementioned Gungan, the jokes in "D&D" that centered around Snails ranged from boring to annoying to nearly offensive, without ever getting within spitting distance of funny.
     But just in case one comic relief character wasn't enough, the kind producers of "D&D" also gave us the dwarf who's name I never figured out. I suppose, as a staple of the Dungeons & Dragons universe, that a dwarf character was necessary. But I am amazed at the clumsiness with which the character was thrown into the script. He appears very early on, joining the protagonists and fighting their enemies for no clear reason. After establishing how classically dwarfy he is by espousing the virtues of gold, beards and beer, and declaring his dislike for elves and horses, the dwarf proceeds to spend the rest of the movie doing absolutely nothing, save for occasionally hitting a bad guy with the wrong side of his axe in one of the movie's bloodless battle scenes.
     I think that the biggest problem this movie faced was not having any clear idea who its audience was supposed to be. As I see it, the producers had two options: market the film towards its guaranteed audience, the D&D players, or market it for mass consumption. Instead, they took the middle road, and gave us a movie with too many unexplained concepts for the uninitiated, and too many deviations from the expected for the die-hard gamers.
     For example, in one scene the heroes approach a castle where their companion Marina is held captive. As they peek over the wall, they see several orb-shaped CGI creatures floating amongst the guards. Primary good guy Ridley exclaims "Beholders!", and throws a rock at one group of guards. Two guards and one of the cycloptic, tentacled monsters chase off after the rock, thus allowing our clever heroes to sneak in. Ignoring the irrational behavior of the guards, the monsters pose a bit of a problem. For those who have never played D&D, there is no adequate explanation as to what a beholder is (though you can probably assume it's one of these big blue guys with the eyes), or why our heroes should be worried about them. And for those in the know, there is no adequate explanation as to what these hideous monsters are doing in the scene, or why they are palling around with humans or each other.
     And then there's the pretty young mage who spends half the movie being completely useless, and waiting for the other good guys to rescue her. So why doesn't she just cast one of her magic spells at the villains? Well it turns out that she's missing her little bag of magical ingredients. But of course they don't bother to explain this during the course of the movie, and I had to reconstruct it afterwards based on my knowledge of the game. To anyone else, I assume this bit would have been completely confusing.
     But for all the tired characters, bad jokes, goofy costumes, low-quality props, over- and under-acting, predictable plot lines, pointless characters, and confusing contrivances, "Dungeons & Dragons" had exactly three redeeming points.
     One, there were some cool backdrops. The elven city looked particularly cool, with hundreds of elvish homes shining out from enormous trees.
     Two, the dragon fight at the end was pretty good. I'm sure a lot of money was spent on the CG for that sequence, and it had some neat moments. Dragons are pretty cool to begin with, so it's hard to go wrong with a huge draconic grand melee.
     Three, this movie was so bad that it was funny. I went with friends, and we weren't afraid to talk in a theater with only ten other viewers. So we hurled a fair amount of verbal abuse at the much-deserving screen, and this made the whole thing much more enjoyable. This is a movie where you can't help but laugh at the cliched evil of the villains, and the equally cliched righteousness of the heroes. And that's really the most positive thing I can say about it.



Unbreakable

     You've probably seen the ads. And, if you're like 90% of everybody else, you probably enjoyed M. Night Shyamalan's directorial debut, "The Sixth Sense." So you're probably thinking that "Unbreakable," which again pairs Shyamalan with actor Bruce Willis, will be worth seeing. And I'm here to tell you that you're right.
     The problem I'm faced with now is that there is little more I can safely say about this movie. I could, for example, draw a comparison between "Unbreakable" and "The Sixth Sense." Both movies have a slow, steady pace; a somewhat gloomy atmosphere; an incredible attention to detail, which includes a careful use of color; and a surprise ending. But with the latter movie, I could have at least mentioned that the movie was a supernatural drama about a young boy who sees and hears the spirits of the dead, and about the child psychologist who tries to help him. This would not be the whole story, but it would be the truth. With "Unbreakable," even some of these simple facts about plot and character are part of the surprise.
     From the moment previews end, and a list of statistics about American comic book consumption appear on screen, "Unbreakable" proves to audiences that it is not exactly the movie they were expecting. And from there, watching it is like nothing so much as opening a series of increasingly desireable birthday presents. Only gradually do you become aware of what the movie is really about, and who the characters really are. It's a singular experience that I will endeavor not to spoil in the remainder of this review.
     Bruce Willis stars as the protagonist, David Dunn. He's a perfectly average man, in a perfectly average job, with an averagely imperfect marriage. The movie begins with a major turning point in Dunn's life - a tragic train wreck from which none but Dunn survive, and he miraculously unharmed. There and beyond, Willis delivers a very satisfying performance, with much of the same intensity as he showed in "The Sixth Sense." But in addition, he does well in portraying an "average Joe" grappling with the suspicion that he might just be a little more than average.
     Samuel L. Jackson plays Elijah Price, the all-too-breakable comic aficionado who tries to convince Dunn of his above-average status. The shockingly versatile Jackson (I mean, come on, this is a far cry from John Shaft here), plays his role perfectly. Intentionally or not, he steals most of the scenes right out from under Willis. But then, that is often the case for characters of his archetype in movies of this genre. That I can't tell you what the aforementioned archetype and genre are is one of the very cool things about this movie. To tell you would give away too much. What I will say is, pay attention to Elijah's wardrobe.
     There is a slight chance that my having grown up with comic books has unduly improved my opinion of this movie. But it does a very good job of sketching out the major points of comic book logic. Between that and the inevitable exposure of just about everyone to the likes of Superman and Batman, I don't think anyone is likely to miss out on the finer nuances of "Unbreakable."
     And that really is just about all I can say here. Except to say that I really do have a lot more to say about this movie, but not until you've seen it (Say that three times fast!). So if you do see it, and have the opportunity, please come on by and I'd love to discuss it in person. And having said that, what greater review can I give then to say that this movie made me want to talk, talk, talk about it long after the credits rolled.



The Grinch

     I really wanted to like "The Grinch." And I did, just not as much as I wanted. It was cute, and fun, but ultimately left me feeling that it just could have been better.
     The absolute best thing about the movie was the perfection with which the world of Dr. Seuss was brought to life. Every building is rounded and oddly-proportioned, every prop full of Rube Goldberg excess, and nearly every character just a little bit animal. This is especially impressive given that so many of the film's elements were created from whole cloth, having no precise roots in the original publication. And yet the new characters, objects, and locales all still managed to capture that indefinable Dr. Seuss feel. All, of course, accompanied by that wonderful sing-song cadence to narration and dialogue alike.
     Although it was most definitely a children's movie, a great deal of the humor in "The Grinch" was adult-accessible, sometimes exclusively so. So I got quite a few good laughs out of it. Most of the good jokes, of course, were from Jim Carrey's Grinch mugging, capering, and wise-cracking about. Unfortunately, this same humor often went just a little stale, and whisked me right out of Whoville and back into the theatre, staring up at Ace Ventura, Pet Detective in green.
     As far as I could tell, the movie changed not a single line from the book. However, in order to fill a two-hour film, a great deal was *added* to the book. Again, this was largely pretty good stuff. The somewhat expanded "spirit of Christmas" moral was handled very well, and probably made a worthy addition. But some of the additional material was flatly contradictory to the original text, which made things a bit confusing when they were presented side-by-side.
     For instance, we are told twice how no one really knows why the Grinch loathes Christmas so much. Then the movie flashes back to a half-hour's worth of backstory on exactly why the Grinch hates Christmas. There was nothing expressly wrong with these scenes, and in fact they helped to make the Grinch a much more sympathetic character. But they also turned the voice-over narration into a pretty direct lie, which was annoying at the very least.
     In another case, we have the Grinch berating the Whos for not understanding the true meaning of Christmas. This is all well and good, and helps strengthen the movie's message. Until, at the end, the Grinch goes through his major attitude adjustment upon realizing the true meaning of Christmas. But how could he be preaching about the meaning of Christmas in the middle of the movie, when he doesn't realize until the end that "maybe Christmas is not something you buy in the store?"
     Another small gripe I had was the movie's songs. I had no expectations of watching a musical. And I guess I didn't (watch one, that is), but there were a couple of songs that were just plain out of place. I think what really got to me was when the mind-shatteringly cute Cindy-Loo Who broke into song for no particular reason. The singing just seemed to have no part in the movie. It didn't have the plot necessity of the Whos' Christmas song, nor could I grant it the nostalgic leeway that I did the surprise inclusion of "You're a Mean One, Mister Grinch."
     I really think it was these kinds of little things that prevented me from unreservedly enjoying this movie. And that's a shame, because there really are lots of great little moments to be had in "The Grinch." On the other hand, the movie has made approximately a zillion dollars so far. So hey, what do I know?



The Exorcist

     Writer's block is evil. For my sake, please pretend that this paragraph consists of a variety of witty, insightful remarks about the newly-released version of "The Exorcist." That way I can carry on to the main body of this review without feeling bad about the opening.
     The first thing that I have to say about the movie is that there are certain people who absolutely should not see it. There is a reason that this release is being touted as "the version you've never seen," and I am under the impression that some of the restored footage would have earned "The Exorcist" the dreaded "X" rating back when it was first released. But it seems some standards have relaxed, and now the movie is judged suitable for anyone who appears 17 or older. The point is, this film has moments that are nothing short of obscene, to the point where I can't even describe them here. You have been warned.
     For everybody else, I'm recommending the movie, because it was good. I'd never seen the original cut of the film, so this was an entirely novel experience. By the same token, I'm afraid I don't know whether the new version will add anything special for those who've seen it before. Although not normally something that it occurrs to me to critique, I was very impressed with this movie's pacing. It started off very slow, just shy of boring. Gradually, very small elements of Regan's posession begin to creep in. And then as things begin to get worse, the pace quickens until we are rushing headlong into the climax. And somehow it all seemed perfect, and the movie never felt long despite its hefty run-time.
     I would hardly have been able to fault the film if it had seemed long, since a great deal of time was spent on character development. The cast of primary characters in the movie was fleshed-out in detail, and included some wonderfully flawed individuals. Of particular note and omportance, of course, are the two priests. One's weak heart and the other's weak faith set the stage for a very difficult battle against evil.
     At this point I've pretty much covered the important points. "The Exorcist" had deep characters, was well-paced, and was deeply disturbing. I should also mention that the ending took me very much by surprise, which was a good thing. It was quite refreshing to have a break from the usual Hollywood ending. And there were all sorts of little subtle touches that I enjoyed, but I don't want to spoil anything. So instead I'll just end the review now.



Space Cowboys

     My Review of "Space Cowboys": Fun movie. Decent plot. Good acting. Cool yet restrained special effects. Predictable. Extraneous characters. Extraneous romance. NASA is cool. Good humor. Good action.
     My Review of Microsoft Products in General: Bad. Bad. Evil. Bad. Evil. Lame. They hate me. Windows NT crashed because I had the gall to try to start Word, and I lost the much-more-detailed version of my "Space Cowboys" review that I had spent all day writing.



The Perfect Storm

     Big waves, dirty fishermen, some heroic deaths, the human spirit triumphs over nature. This is more or less what I figured "The Perfect Storm" had to offer, and I fully intended to give it a miss until good reviews started coming in. That and it was the only thing playing last night that I hadn't seen. So let me say now that the movie proved me wrong, and I like that.
     The movie, in short, is about a down-on-their luck fishing crew that goes out for one last haul, and gets caught by the "Storm of the Century." It is based on a true story, though by the end we know that certain events depicted in the film are completely products of supposition.
     This is another effects-laden film, and some of the shots of the stormy ocean truly inspire awe and terror. The only times the effects are at all lacking are in some long shots where the actors are replaced with CGI replicas. We're still not at the point where computer effects can accurately mimic humans.
     The cast gives solid performances, though the emotional range of the fishermen seems only to go from macho to gung-ho. The teaming of Mark Wahlberg and George Clooney works as well as it did in "Three Kings," which means I had no complaints. Suffice to say that playing a bunch of dirty fishermen is either easy, or these guys did it convincingly enough to make it look easy.
     But of course the main draw of "The Perfect Storm" are the action sequences. The struggle between man and nature is played out in a series of minor battles, any one of which tends to get the adrenaline pumping. In traditional disaster-movie style, we get a healthy dose of heroism and camraderie, as our protagonists bravely face every challenge that comes their way.
     My main complaint about this movie also comes from it's disaster-movie roots. There's a secondary plotline here about a small pleasurecraft caught in the same storm, and the rescue of its occupants. And while this side-story is no doubt factual, it seemed out of place within the movie. It took more time than necessary to establish that yes, there were other victims of this storm, but was not developed enough to actually count as a part of the movie's plot. We never even really meet the characters in this subplot, and so we don't care all that much what happens to them. But perhaps the less cynical among you won't be so hard on it.
     I feel bad giving this movie such a short treatment compared to "X-Men," since I liked it just about as much. But there's not a lot more I can think of to say. It was an enjoyable movie, and had generally good things to say about human beings. I don't think there was too much here to offend anybody, except for some bad language and messy fish guts. So put it on the list (and you'll probably want to see it on the big screen for some of those storm scenes), and I don't think you'll be dissapointed.



X-Men

     Movies based on comic books are dangerous propositions in Hollywood. With the exception of the early Christopher Reeve "Superman" movies, and the Michael Keaton "Batman" movies, just about every attempted translation of comic-book superheroes to the big screen has been an abject failure. As this is especially true of Marvel Comics, I was expecting to be dissapointed by "X-Men." Imagine my suprise when this movie managed not only to surpass all previous efforts, but to actually make for a good film.
     Mind you, I'm probably about as close to this movie's target audience as you can get without living in your parents' basement. I'm a male, aged 18 to 25, who used to collect the comic. So let this be my warning that my enthusiasm for this movie might not be shared by all.
     And before I get into it, let me add one final warning. Normally, I can be very hard on sci-fi films from a realism standpoint. When I spent a paragraph berating "Mission to Mars" on it's misuse of genetics, I meant it. But with a film like this, there are just some things you have to accept. So sure, no amount of genetic mutation would ever cause someone to be able to control the weather or shoot lasers from their eyes. Once you've accepted that, and put it behind you, you're ready to enjoy the movie.
     The premise of "X-Men" is that, in the near future, an increasing number of humans are being born with mutations that grant them special powers. Most of these people wish simply to live out normal lives. Others will use their powers for criminal gain. And then, of course, there are the "good guys," who want to use their powers to stop the evil mutants and generally save the world. The titular X-Men are a group of such superheroes.
     The twist that "X-Men" throws into this mix is that mutants, good or bad, face prejudice from the majority of "normal" humanity. This acts as an extended metaphor and morality lesson about prejudice. Though the metaphor works for the whole gamut of bigotry, down even to the level of that kid in high school who everyone thought was "really weird," the most explicit parallels that come across on-screen are to Nazi anti-semitism and the modern struggle for gay rights. Some of the anti-mutant rallies in this movie reminded me of nothing so much as the activism of such charming groups as "God Hates Fags."
     "X-Men" has been running as a comic for over thirty years, so there are quite a few characters that could potentially have been in this movie. Fortunately, the cast was winnowed down to six primary heroes, and four mutant antagonists.
     The heroes include the X-Men's leader, Charles Xavier, a parapalegic who can read and control the minds of others. Next in the line of command is Cyclops, a mutant who fires powerful lasers from his eyes, and cannot control these blasts without special eyewear. His teammate and fiancee is Jean Grey, who can move objects with her mind, and read minds to a lesser extent than Professor Xavier. Next up is Storm, who controls the weather. Rounding out the list are Wolverine, who's body can heal any wound in a matter of moments, and who's skeleton was laced with an unbreakable metal by a secret Canadian military experiment, which included the addition of rectractable claws; and Rogue, who can steal the powers and memories of others at a single touch.
     The lion's share of characterization and screen time goes to these latter two characters. Fortunately both Hugh Jackman (Wolverine) and Ann Paquin (Rogue) give excellent performances. Paquin's affected southern accent disappears at times, but Jackman manages to capture the spirit of his character in a way I wasn't sure was possible. It's a shame we don't get to see more character development in some of the other heroes, but then there's only so much time to work with. And in the cases of Halle Berry's Storm and Rebecca Romijn's performance as shape-shifting villain Mystique, it's probably best that they didn't get too many lines.
     So what's so darn good about this movie? Well it had great effects, some fun action scenes, and even some moments of clever dialogue, those these lines were almost exclusively given to Wolverine. All this and it managed to remain more or less true to the comic book, at least in terms of theme and style. Die-hard X-Men fans may balk at some of the minor changes made to characters and story arcs, but I found nothing to complain about, and obviously someone who hasn't read the comic won't know the difference.
     I also appreciated the tidbits that they did provide for the fans. The movie pokes fun at itself in a few spots, making fun of things like the absurd names that the heroes take on, and the bizarre costumes they wear. There are also cameos by some of the comic characters who didn't make the cut as main characters in the movie; these appear in roles of varying obscurity throughout the "School for Gifted Youngsters" that acts as the X-Men's home base. And no doubt some of these characters are being set up for use in the sequel.
     The biggest complaints about this movie will come from the uninitiated. Because in an apparent attempt not to bore the fans, some important details in this movie just aren't explained. In particular, certain details about the powers of some heroes and villains are never mentioned in the movie, so if you didn't know them already they'd be hard to guess. Even I, as a former collector of the comic, had trouble figuring out who was doing what in some scenes, and I have no clue where the X-Men are supposed to have got their supersonic stealth jet.
     But this movie is, in the end, a lot of fun. It may be over-the-top fun at times, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. And I don't want to discourage non-fans from seeing this movie, since I think you'll still get a kick out of it. The fight scenes are cool, the effects are impressive, the characters are interesting if somewhat underdeveloped, and it even has a message. And in traditional Marvel style, even though the good guys win, nobody is definitively dead, and things are wide open for the next issue.



The Patriot

     So I was thinking the same thing that everyone else was: That "The Patriot" would just be "Braveheart" with muskets. And though the similarities really can't be avoided, "The Patriot" stands on its own and makes for an enjoyable film. It has loads of good action, epic battles, and all kinds of other fun.
     Yes, it has Mel Gibson as a reluctant hero who leads farmers to victory in battle. Yes, the enemy is the English again. And yes, we hear a lot about freedom. But this time the hero is a veteran of the French and Indian War, and his reluctance to fight stems from a dark secret in his past. And this time we get to see some good Englishmen as well as the despicable. And, well... maybe that's where the differences between this and "Braveheart" end.
     The action scenes are generally very good in this movie, and only go over the top a couple of times. Apart from these few Rambo-esque moments, things seemed pretty realistic, or at least enough so that a layman like me didn't know any better. It was pleasing, for instance, to see how the long loading times of Revolutionary War era weapons slowed down the shootouts. And I felt it was rather bold and honest for the movie to depict teen and preteen boys handling weapons in combat situations.
     And though there's a great deal of overlap between "action scenes" and "battle scenes," I'm giving separate mention of the latter due to the sheer technical brilliance of the battles. The wonders of CGI gave us huge armies, thousands strong, of Revolutionaries and Redcoats marching to war with one another. And when we zoomed in for a closer look, the costumes and equipment and marching of the soldiers were all a visual treat. And I have to give special mention to the cannon-fire effects, because they were brilliant and I can't get them out of my head. In addition to the somewhat gimmicky cannonball-heading-toward-the-camera effect, we get to see the cannonballs flying in the long views of the battlefield. Most movies seem to feature random explosions on the battlefield, and we are left to assume that they were caused by cannonballs travelling too fast to see. But in "The Patriot" each explosion is preceded by a lightning-quick view of the cannonball arcing onto the battlefield from offscreen, leaving a quickly-fading trail of smoke. My words don't really do this effect justice, but it was really cool, and I'll be surprised if we don't see it used in every Age of Gunpowder movie from now on.
     Hand-in-hand with these realistic battle effects are realistic depictions of the bloodshed that results. Consequently, this is a very gory movie. Soldiers are killed and wounded in a variety of unpleasant ways, all on screen in living color. And even some of the less graphic deaths are a bit disturbing, for there is a great deal of pain and suffering to be had in this movie.
     Some of the less-graphic but more painful moments in this movie come by way of the villain, Colonel William Tavington. This is actually a very dissapointing character, because he's a man with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. In fact, the character really doesn't have any qualities to speak of, except for his unremitting evil. No motivation or goal is here to be found, unless it is that he simply enjoys being mean. And though this may be the idea we're supposed to get about this character, I would have preferred a bit more dimension.
     By the same token, our hero, Benjamin Martin, has little more depth. The dark past which plagues him throughout the movie seems to be well and truly in the past. He is now a good and righteous man, to the point of absurdity. The most telling point is that he is a South Carolinian plantation owner whos black farmhands are free men. This is one case where I would have liked to see a little historical integrity, even at the cost of tarnishing our hero's image.
     And in the words of Abe Simpson, "The romantic sub-plot seemed tacked on." The romance between Martin and his sister-in-law was completely tangential and unnecessary to the plot, and did little more than take up yet more screen time. I will say the opposite about the romance between Martin's son, Gabriel, and his childhood sweetheart. This one had some purpose in the plot of the film, and was handled with a refreshing degree of true-to-period chastity.
     "The Patriot" was corny and shallow at times, but it was also exciting and beautiful at times. I would say that watching the latter is worth putting up with the former, so this still qualifies as one to see.



Chicken Run

     Be shocked and amazed as I do my best impression of a real movie critic by once again seeing a movie before it actually opens! Unless, of course, you're reading this after June 23rd, in which case I could be lying. But the point is that I've just seen "Chicken Run," the new claymation feature by Nick Park, and here I am to do my duty and review it for you.
     The name Nick Park is most likely to illicit only quizzical looks from most. But this is another case of an animator I've known about for some time, who's work is only now coming to the American big screen. And again, after what I'd seen of his previous work, I was looking forward to this one. Park's previous animated shorts, in addition to having been Academy award nominees, have all been very cute, clever films. So I was expecting more of the same from "Chicken Run." And I wasn't disappointed.
     This movie is, first and foremost, a family movie. Slapstick humor abounds, and there is nothing there to offend anyone's sensibilities, though it might put your kids off chicken pot pie for a while. On the other hand, much like "Toy Story" and its sequel, there is a lot of humor there for the adults that will fly right over kids' heads. There were some amusing references to "Star Trek," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and caber-tossing; and these were just the ones I picked up. I know for a fact that there were several jokes about "The Great Escape," most of which I missed since I haven't seen that movie. So this movie has a lot of laughs in store for someone with a keen eye and a sizeable store of movie trivia.
     The plot is a familiar one, and doesn't hold too many surprises. But there's some comfort in that familiarity. The characters are nicely varied, and provide a good deal of comic interaction. And they all have various different British accents, which is almost amusing enough on its own. Which brings up the ironic fact that Mel Gibson (an Aussie, as I'm sure you know) provides the American accent for Rocky the Rooster. His is the only recognizeable voice in the bunch, and he does a pretty good job at it.
     There's really not much more to say about this one. It's a cute, fun little movie, and definitely one for adults as well as children. Though if you're not bringing kids, you might want to see it at a show where you won't be surrounded by other people's offspring. It gets tiring listening to the constant babble of the five-year-old in the next row. But I digress. Good movie, funny for all, lots of in-jokes (though no Wallace & Gromit cameo that I was expecting), see it with your kids or after they're in bed.



Shaft

     Who's the black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks? Who's the cat that won't cop out when danger's all about? That's right, I'm talkin' about "Shaft." And the above two lines were just about all I knew of this movie coming into it.
     Part remake and part sequel, this second look at the famed 70's blaxploitation franchise is simply a very cool film. And why is it so cool? Because of Shaft, of course. When it comes down to it, this movie is not about the plot, or the moral issues, or the suspense, or the action. It's about John Shaft. The price of a movie ticket buys you Shaft delivering cool lines, Shaft taking the law into his own hands, Shaft effortlessly charming the ladies, Shaft strolling through action scenes with without breaking a sweat, and Shaft just generally standing around being Shaft.
     And all of these cool Shaft moments are made possible by Samuel L. Jackson, who plays the titular complicated man with infinite cool. From the moments of calm to the climactic action scenes, Jackson really carries the movie, and shines with every minute of it. But I would be remiss if I failed to mention the contribution of Richard Roundtree, reprising his role as... John Shaft. Called simply "Uncle J" in the movie, but exuding all the same style as his younger protege, the original Shaft provides a link to the original films. This isn't so much a remake as a continuation of the saga - "Shaft Junior," if you will.
     The plot traces the course of Shaft from New York cop to private detective, and the racially motivated murder that gets him there. It's a path that winds through drug traffic, corrupt cops, powerful criminals, race relations, and of course lots of bullets. None of it really ends up mattering much in the end, which left me with a twinge of disappointment. But it was an engaging ride, so there's not much room to complain.
     Small things sometimes have leave a big impact when I watch a movie. In "Shaft," there was an insignificant scene that I really appreciated for its departure from the norm. During the big car chase, one of the "bad guy" cars runs off the road and does a spectacular mid-air roll. And it does not explode. The fact that a crashed car in an action movie did not explode was such a refreshing moment I had to devote an entire paragraph to it.
     One thing that's a little hard to get used to with this movie is that, despite it's modern setting, Shaft acts like he's living back in the 70's. His attitude toward the ladies and his rough treatment of criminals are both relics of a less uptight era. It was all a bit shocking at first, but it's an integral part of who Shaft is, so you just have to go with the flow. Deeper analysis wouldn't really get anywhere, because no one understands him but his woman.
     And in case I didn't mention it, the action scenes are reasonably cool as well. It's the usual fare of car chases and gun battles, and bad guys who can't seem to aim straight. Not that I'm complaining. These are the things you look for in an action movie, and "Shaft" can't really be faulted for failing to break new ground.
     To sum up: It's cool. It's Shaft. 'Nuff said.



Mission Impossible 2

     I wasn't really expecting much out of "Mission Impossible 2." I thought that the first one was pretty good, despite some logic-straining elements. But after seeing previews for the sequel, and noting that John Woo would be at the helm, I was a bit worried. I figured that the movie would abandon its spy-flick roots and go entirely over to action, which seemed a shame.
     The good news is, there were still some cool bits of espionage and spy-tech to be found in this movie. There was also quite a bit of action, but the movie didn't feel unbalanced in that direction. The mixture of the two led to a movie that I actually enjoyed, if only for its visceral thrills and not any great strides in the art of filmmaking.
     The plot goes something like this: An IMF agent goes bad, and steals an earth-shatteringly important biochemical concoction, killing a bunch of innocents in the process. So we know he's really bad. Tom Cruise returns as Ethan Hunt, assigned to recover stolen goods. To do it, he'll need the help of master thief Nyah, played by Thandie Newton (no, I'd never heard of her either). Remember the Catherine Zeta-Jones role from "Entrapment?" Same character. Apparently devastatingly beautiful olive-skinned women who go to career guidance counselors are told that their only viable occupational choice is world-class thief. And of course there's romance between Hunt and Nyah, which progresses at an unbelievably fast rate. And of course Ving Rhames returns in sidekick capacity as Luther, providing dry witticisms at all the right moments.
     There were a variety of twists in the plot, none of which came as any kind of surprise. This was mildly annoying, because a variety of scenes were filmed in such a way as to produce maximum dramatic tension, if only you didn't know what was coming next. But since you do, the dramatic pauses seem unnecessary, and I just wanted them to get on with it. There were also some plot contrivances that bugged me. For the most part these can be explained away without too much difficulty, but they seemed a little too convenient nonetheless. And on a final plot note, I have to ask, does the Impossible Missions Force ever save the world from anyone but itself? This is the second movie where the bad guys are IMF. I start to wonder who they'd normally go up against, or if they're more trouble than they're worth.
     The action in this movie was entertaining, but frequently over the top. It seemed like our hero couldn't kick someone without first performing a double-back flip with a half-pike. And at least in the climactic final slugfest, half of these moves ended with Cruise landing face-first in the dirt. I'm no martial arts expert, but it seems to me that the preferred technique should not involve chewing turf after every blow. The most telling instance of this form-over-function approach came in a scene where Ethan Hunt is parachuting to safety. Before pulling his chute, he does a mid-air flip. Why? Because it looked cool, I guess. Anyway, a lot of these moves looked really cool but started to strain believability. I assume that ever since "The Matrix" introduced wire-rigged martial arts to American audiences, directors have been dying to use them. But remember, unless your characters have supernatural powers, they should probably limit themselves to moves that can be performed without the rig.
     One of the gems in "Mission Impossible 2" was a couple of short sequences where the bad guy analyzed and predicted Ethan Hunts behavior. In addition to providing a bit of plot tension, this bit was also essentially making fun of both "Mission Impossible" movies. I don't want to give it away, but there's a line here that hits home with particular force. It was refreshing to see that the filmmakers were't taking themselves too seriously.
     Because ultimately this is a movie that shouldn't be taken very seriously. Enjoy it for the action, and the espionage, and try your best to ignore the more glaring flaws. And try not to wonder why Anthony Hopkins's talent was wasted on such a tiny role.



Gladiator

     You would think, given the title, that "Gladiator" would have had more gladiatorial combats. I have to admit a bit of dissapointment at the absence of some of the more bizarre contests. Never was the movie's coliseum floor filled with water for naval battles, nor were we treated with pitched melees of midgets versus fat women. But despite the surprising dearth of arena combat, the movie was an entertaining vehicle for testosterone-packed action.
     The most obvious reason for the reduced emphasis on death sports was to make way for a plot. Our hero is Maximus, perhaps the greatest general of the Roman army, and chosen successor of emperor Marcus Aurelius. His antagonist is Commodus, who takes the throne in typically Roman fashion and orders the death of Maximus. Maximus escapes execution only to end up a slave in the gladitorial pits of some far-flung Roman province. The plot moves from there, driven by Commodus's ambition and desire to be sole political voice of the empire, and by Maximus's struggle to survive, exact revenge, and save Rome.
     Although Russel Crowe gives a good performance as Maximus, the character is somewhat flat. Sure, he's noble and honorable and highly skilled, and he's definitely driven. And perhaps I wouldn't even feel that this character was weak if not for the contrast of Commodus. Joaquin Phoenix plays Commodus, and gives us a refreshingly interesting villain. Of course he's thoroughly evil, as any bad guy in a movie like this must be. And he gives us most of the movie's rare hints at the more dissolute side of ancient Rome. But for once we get a villain who is more than just his own evil. He is intelligent and ambitious, but also lonely and frightened. We would pity Commodus during his temper-tantrums were they not so amusing. Through some combination of writing and acting, Commodus was made to be a truly interesting and conflicted antagonist, for who's demise the audience can nonethless cheerfully root.
     I should take a moment here to mention the visuals. This is a movie which begs to be viewed on the big screen. Scenes such as the Roman army arrayed for battle at the movie's start, or the digitally rendered Roman skyline at later points, were simple breathtaking. The film's opening battle sequence was epic in scope. Some strange film techniques were used in that battle, and much of the action appeared choppy and sped up. I imagine this was a stylistic choice meant to emphasise the chaos of battle, but I can't be sure. Whatever the case, the battle was still impressive, even though it was a bit hard to watch at times.
     But what really matters about this movie, of course, are the gladiatorial combats. And those were very, very cool. The fights are quick and bloody affairs, and appeal to some deeply-rooted part of the human (or male, at least) psyche. As I said before, the combats are actually rather few in number. But each is such a wonderful slice of pure action that these fights alone are still worth the price of admission. And dissapointed as I was that they didn't wedge more of these bloody melees in, it would have been hard to justify given the progression of the plot. So there's really not much room to complain.
     So basically what this movie has going for it are action, a cool villain, action, gorgeous Roman recreations, action, a decent plot, and action. And did I mention the really cool gladiator fights? Actually, somehow I've failed to mention that "Gladiator" also had some really well-placed plot elements, some very powerfully-shot scenes, and some slyly subtle dialogue, but I don't see where I can go back and insert more commentary into the above paragraphs. I guess you'll just have to go see it for yourself.



Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

     One thing that always gets to me when reading movie reviews is writers' use of the word "style." When I read that certain movie is "stylish," or "exudes style," I really have no idea what that's supposed to mean. And yet "stylish" somehow seems like the best - perhaps the only - word I can find to describe "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai." I suppose I could speak more plainly and just say that it was cool, but not in a whiz-bang sort of way. Instead, it's cool in a more quiet, self-assured kind of way. And you see that description might be kind of confusing, so I have to fall back and say that this movie was stylish.
     "Ghost Dog" is the story of a hit man who follows the way of the samurai. His "master" is a low-echelon mafia man. After a faithfully-executed inside hit ruffles the wrong feathers, Ghost Dog finds himself the target of mob vengeance. We've seen this sort of plot before, but the twist is that our protagonist is not out for personal vengeance or even self defense. He's only doing what he sees to be his duty as a samurai.
     My first surprise came when I realized that this movie has a sense of humor. I was expecting darkness, action, and the somber determination of Forest Whitaker as the titular hip-hop hit man, so I was caught off-guard when things got funny. This is not to say that "Ghost Dog" is in any way a comedy, but it has some wonderful moments of comic relief. There are elements of slapstick and absurdist comedy here (like a mob boss extolling the virtues of rapper Flavor Flav), as well as some bits of very subtle dry humor.
     Some of the ineffable style of this movie comes out in its heavy use of parallels. Like the comedy elements, the parallels and metaphors range from the subtle to the blatant. We see the obvious (and humorous) parallel dialogue of Ghost Dog and his French-speaking friend, Raymond, as well as the more deeply seated parallel between the mafia and the samurai code. Pay particular attention to the cartoons that the mobsters always seem to be watching, as well as the passages from "Hagakure" that separate many of the movie's scenes. I'm too much of an "in the moment" movie watcher to catch all the significance of these moments, but they have a lot to say about the scenes immediately preceding or following them.
     Given my general dislike for rap music, and Ghost Dog's predilection for playing music on his way to a job, I was worried that my musical prejudices would spoil this movie for me. However, a mix of reggae and experimental jazz in Ghost Dog's CD collection lightened the burden on my ears. And I have to admit that some of the old-school rap almost brought a gleam of nostalgia to this white boy's eyes. Almost.
     For a movie about a samurai, action scenes are surprisingly sparse in "Ghost Dog." But this seems to go hand-in-hand with the film's aforementioned style. Instead of the sackful of twenty-nine cent cheeseburgers most modern action films hand us, "Ghost Dog" delivers something more akin to an artfully arranged plate of hand-rolled sushi. To switch metaphors, each of the action scenes in this movie plays out like a miniature ballet, thanks in no small part to Whitaker's surprising grace.
     Let me take this moment to further praise Forest Whitaker's performance. His acting talents are one of the things that drew me to this movie in the first place, and I was not disappointed. Whitaker does an excellent job of portraying Ghost Dog's on-the-job aspect of cold professionalism, but switches easily to a wider range of emotional expression during the character's "normal life" moments.
     But don't let me marginalize the other actors in this film. Most of the other performances are very good, particularly the quirky mob bosses. Given the small size of some of the roles, the amount of depth they contain is impressive.
     Locally (in San Diego, that is), "Ghost Dog" is only playing at the Hillcrest Theatres, at 9:30 every night. Even if you don't live as close to the theatre as I do, it's worth the trip to see this movie. But if you can't, make sure to rent it when it comes out on video. Because this is a very cool movie (two servlets up, for Greg's benefit), especially if you have any affection for feudal Japan. And you just won't know the meaning of "stylish" unless you see it yourself.



Rules of Engagement

     In general, I don't think I like courtroom dramas very well. They usually seem very formulaic, and every predictable step leads up to that inevitable dramatic pause before the final verdict is read. And yet you can't really blame the movies for this formula, because the courts they're showing work in a very particular, structured way. Only the very rare exceptional film manages to simultaneously capture this rigid framework, and rise above it. "Rules of Engagement" is not such a film.
     This particular courtroom drama revolves around the court martial of Colonel Childers (played by Samuel L. Jackson), accused of murdering innocent civilian protesters in Yemen. He insists that his orders to fire were in the defense of himself and his marines, and so the stage is set for extended lawyering. Tommy Lee Jones, as Childers' long time buddy, argues for the defense.
     During the first hour or so of the movie, I was really getting into it. There seemed to be potential for some real moral ambiguity. We see Childers' checkered past; we don't really know what happened at the embassy protest; there seem to be "good guys" on both sides of the case. But then, quite suddenly, the film changed direction.
     As the movie progresses through the inevitabilities of court procedure, things begin to clear up. We find out "the truth," and for the rest of the movie the characters can easily be pigeonholed as "good guys" or "bad guys." From then on things are pretty much predictable. Justice is served, the truth revealed, etc., etc.
     And all of this would have been okay with me. I'm not so great a cynic that I don't appreciate a happy ending now and then. But in the final moments before the credits, we are treated with a few messages relating the ultimate fates of the primary characters. And somehow this just blew it for me. It wasn't enough that the "good guys" won, we have to be told that the "bad guys" get what's coming for them. Everything is neatly wrapped up and delivered with a little bow, so that we can all be comfortable that life is in fact fair.
     For a movie with nothing really special going for it, this bit of annoying pollyanaism really killed it for me. All in all, this is probably coming off harsher than "Rules of Engagement" really deserves. But the point is, it wasn't a very good movie. I'd have rather seen my $5.50 go elsewhere.



Mission to Mars

     Many movies, when the credits have rolled and the lights come up, leave the audience with unanswered questions. Sometimes these questions are more important than any given answer, and the movie is better off for the asking. Other times, the unanswered questions leave the audience feeling cheated, and we wonder if the screenwriter perhaps forgot a few pages. After watching "Mission to Mars," the question that weighed most heavily on my mind was "so what?"
     After two hours of gradual buildup, the movie ends on a rather flat note. I kept expecting something surprising or interesting to happen, but nothing of the sort ever materialized.
     One of the reasons there really aren't any surprises in this movie is that the ad campaign gives it all away. If you've seen a single trailer or preview for this movie, you know that it's about panspermia, the theory that life originated on another planet and spread through space. So it's no shocker when the characters discover the link between Mars and Earth. In fact, if you happen to have seen the 80's CGI short film "Panspermia," you'll no doubt recognize some familiar visual elements.
     It's not that "Mission to Mars" was a bad movie. There were several things to like. The actors gave steady performances. The effects were very slick and well-done. The sets had that certain attention to detail which generally separates the good sci-fi from the dreck. And the plot, while lacking in creativity, was at least solid and well-executed.
     But I just can't get over the problems. When there's not a lot of high-quality filmmaking to distract me, I have time to nitpick the movie's science. Though most of the movie's zero-G scenes were well done, one featured a formation of M&M's orbiting about an arbitrary line in space. It was a relatively short scene, but as long as they were on screen I just couldn't tear my eyes away from these little candies that were lazily defying physics by moving in circles instead of a straight line. But the more consistent mistake this movie made, and so many other films seem to make, was in its use of genetics.
     Apparently the double-helix of DNA has become a familiar enough cultural icon that filmmakers feel confident in putting it on screen. The problem is this: when you're looking at DNA closely enough to make out that familiar shape, you're looking at maybe a millionth of the total. So it really bothers me, on an academic level, to see our protaganist look at a short twist of DNA on a computer screen (long enough, in my admittedly amateur estimate, to represent a single protein at most) and confidently declare, "That looks like human DNA!" Yes, the scientific jargon required for the characters to really establish such a thing would be far over most viewer's heads, but I want to see things like this done right or not at all.
     Moving along on the hit parade brings me to the most entertaining sequence in the entire movie. About halfway through the film, an emergency aboard the Mars rescue craft leads to a sequence with more drama, more tension, more character insight, more action, and more fun with physics than the rest of the movie combined. It's a great scene - entertaining and well-executed. And entirely tangential to the story. I feel there's something wrong when the best part of a movie could easily be removed with a minimum of rewrite, leaving the essential elements of theme, plot and resolution the same. It's a bit like a cool car chase spliced into the middle of a romance film just to keep the audience awake.
     This is a movie that I really wanted to like. Aside from what amount to a few really minor complaints, there's really nothing wrong with "Mission to Mars." The trouble is that there's really not much more that's right with it. This movie is largely just *there*, filling the screen with lights and sound for a couple of hours, to no particular end.
     "Mission to Mars" is a mild and inoffensive film. It has some nifty special effects and a bright vision of the future. The characters are distinct and interesting, and everyone gets their share of clever dialogue. There's a really cool action sequence in the middle. If this is enough for you, go see the movie. But if you're hoping for another "Contact," I'm afraid you'll be let down.



Pitch Black

     Sci-fi buff that I am, I had high hopes for "Pitch Black." And while it was better than the usual B-movie fare that this genre tends to generate, it was still a bit disappointing. Perhaps this was just another case of too much expectation, but I felt that this movie had a great deal of unrealized potential.
     The basic premise of this movie revolves around a dozen assorted survivors of a crash, and the horrors that wait for them in the dark. The motley collection of survivors includes several children, a holy man, the ship's pilot, a convicted killer, and an agent of the law. As the movie progresses, we see that this small group features sufficient neuroses and emotional baggage for several dysfunctional families.
     From start to finish, "Pitch Black" moved very fast, and seldom let up. This was perhaps too much of a good thing, however, as the rapid succession of events made it difficult to tell what was happening at times. But overall the fast pace kept me riveted to my seat, and made the film seem much shorter than its two-hour running time.
     As with any science fiction movie, the special effects were an important component of "Pitch Black." And there was nothing lacking in effects here; they were thorughly convincing throughout the movie. In addition to the pure-CG antagonist creatures, which were quite well-rendered, extensive effects were used for a number of "night-vision" shots. The latter looked very good and added a bit of depth to the movie in their own way. The only disappointment here is that some of the movie's best shots can be seen in the commercials and trailers, leaving little new eye-candy for the price of admission.
     But what most promoted this movie above the average science fiction offering was a fare amount of character development. Stuffed between threatening monsters and off-screen mutilations, we find not one but two tales of redemption, a small religious crisis, and several other juicy tidbits of real humanity. None of it is particularly groundbreaking, but these elements help to make it a story, rather than a loosely strung-out series of action sequences.
     So now that I've said all these nice things about the movie, what was I so disappointed over? To begin with, the basic outline of the plot was fairly derivative. We've seen this kind of thing many times before, in as many different settings. Moreover, the movie was predictable, nearly to the point where you can determine who will live and who will die within the first ten minutes.
     And then there's the complaint raised by myself and my fellow science fiction geek friends: that the aliens were sorely underdeveloped. The concept behind the alien "monsters" was fairly original, and had great potential. We do learn a small amount about what makes these creatures tick, and get a lot of small hints about them. But in the end, we're left with far too many questions. What do they eat when they're not eating our protagonists? Why do they fight each other? What do they do in the long time between periods of darkness? It seems like there might be some easy answers to these questions, but they're just out of reach. This all may amount to a minor complaint, but I just hate to see something set up so well and then lack any real follow-through.
     But despite my complaints, I liked the movie. If you're a science fiction fan, it's one to see. Though you might feel better about catching a matinee.



What Planet Are You From?

     A man from a distant planet is sent to Earth to impregnate a woman, as the first step in a plan of global domination. But the men of his all-male planet have evolved beyond genitals, so for his mission he'll have to have a set installed - a set which hums when he becomes aroused. Yes, this is the plot of a movie.
     Knowing this general outline ahead of time, I wasn't really expecting much from "What Planet Are You From?" But I was pleasantly surprised. As you might expect, the movie bases a lot of its humor around Gary Shandling (playing the aforementioned alien male), his stumbling attempts to attract women, and his humming penis. What is surprising is that somehow these jokes kept me laughing instead of getting on my nerves.
     The cast is rounded out by Annete Benning, as the alien's primary romantic interest; Greg Kinnear, as a sleazy coworker; and John Goodman, as the FAA official chasing down Shandling. All three make the most of this silly little movie, and I must say that it's nice to see John Goodman on the screen again.
     There's really not much else to say about this movie. It's a light comedy that somehow manages to stay funny all the way through. Oh, sure, it tries to wedge in a bit of a moral during the slower scenes, but it's not fooling anybody. The humor is what keeps us in our seats. Unless you're likely to be offended by a little gratuitous nudity and ceaseless erection jokes, you'll probably get a kick out of it.



Princess Mononoke

     Since I started writing these reviews, I've dealt with a couple of movies that I was really looking forward to seeing. And using "Star Wars" as a primary example, the expectations you build up for these movies can result in some real disappointment. So I was a little worried I would be let down as I got ready to watch "Princess Mononoke."
     Though most Americans have never heard of this movie, I've been waiting for it since "Mononoke Hime" broke all box-office records in Japan two years ago. And for most of that time, all I really knew about the movie was that it was another environmentalist film by my favorite Japanese artist and director, Hayao Miyazaki. That and the fact that Disney would be releasing a dubbed version here in the states, under the title "Princess Mononoke," and they were under contractual agreement not to cut a single frame from the original.
     The basic facts about this film are these: It is an animated feature, but not a children's movie. It is rated a well-deserved PG-13, and would surely have rated an R had not the decapitations, dismemberments, and assorted bloodshed been animated. The story takes place at the edges of civilization in a fantasy version of ancient Japan. A young prince named Ashitaka acquires a deadly curse when he saves his village from an angry boar-god, and his quest for the source of the curse leads him into the middle of a struggle between man and nature.
     One of the things that makes this movie excellent is that this struggle is by no means cut-and-dried. The humans' plunder of the forest is not malicious, but rather a necessary part of their struggle to survive. And the defense of their homelands by the forest creatures is far more vicious than seems justified. By the same token, few of the characters in "Princess Mononoke" are categorically good or evil. The coldly calculating Lady Eboshi, for example, cares nothing for the forests and animals which must be destroyed for the furthering of her plans. And yet she cares deeply for her own race, and shows kindness by giving respectable work to prostitutes and lepers. In contrast is Princess Mononoke herself, the young girl San, who would happily give her life to protect the forest and her adopted family of wolves. Altruistic as she seems, she would be even more happy to take the lives of others to ensure nature's sanctity.
     I can't properly gush about this movie without commenting on Miyazaki's artistic style. His art tends towards the soft and simple lines of classic Disney, and it's clear that he does not seek a high level of realism in his human characters. In a similar vein, individual characters and objects tend to lack fine detail, such as wrinkles in clothing and skin. But on a larger scale, Miyazaki loads great detail into many of his scenes, incorporating intelligible action in foreground, background, and between. Personally, I love his style, but this is one aspect of the movie that is very much a matter of individual taste.
     Hand in hand with the movie's art is its animation. Aside from a few instances of choppy or repetitive motion, the animation of "Princess Mononoke" is of highest quality. The motion is fluid, and it is possible to follow the action even when things begin to move very fast, as they frequently do. For the most part, the moving elements of any given scene do not jar with the background art, as is sometimes the case in animation. And on their own, those backgrounds are beautiful.
     If I was pleased that "The Bone Collector" wasn't 100% predictable, then I was overwhelmed by the freshness of "Princess Mononoke." Most of the time I didn't even bother guessing what would happen next, since I knew I'd be wrong. And this is not to say that the movie's plot is random or arbitrary, but that it breaks from the cliched storylines we've grown used to. Even the inevitable love between San and Ashitaka does not go completely as expected. The tale told here is a complex one, and in the end there are no easy answers.
     The biggest fear I had regarding this movie was the quality of the dubbing. I have seen some truly awful animation dubs in my time, and desperately hoped that Disney/Miramax would do the job right on this one. Imagine my relief when they hired real, talented actors to do the voices for "Princess Mononoke." Though I'm not familiar with Billy Crudup, who performs the voice of Ashitaka, he does a fine job at it. In fact, most of the voice talent is quite well done, with only a couple of exceptions. Claire Danes is somewhat uneven as San, varying from convincing to not, and Billy Bob Thornton seems somewhat out of place as the vestige of his southern accent creeps into the voice of the monk Jigo. Yet for some reason the very noticeable accent of Minnie Driver seems not at all wrong for the imperious Lady Eboshi. It might help that she gets some of the best lines of the movie, but there's no mistaking that she does a superb job. Gillian Anderson lends her voice talent to the wolf-goddess Moro, where she gives a pretty solid performance.
     "Princess Mononoke" is currently in very limited release. Here in San Diego, it is only playing at the Hillcrest Cinema. Apparently ticket sales in Minneapolis will determine whether Miramax gives the movie wide release. Whatever the case, I cannot recommend enough that you see this movie. Even if it's a bit out of the way, it is well worth it.



The Bone Collector

     When I first started seeing trailers for "The Bone Collector," I had no particular intention to see it. The previews indicated the standard suspense-thriller fare - nothing to get excited about. But eventually I found cause to watch this movie, and it really had nothing to do with the increased media buzz about actress Angelina Jolie.
     Said actress plays a young New York cop who stumbles onto a murder scene on her last day on the street. And though forensics is not her area of expertise, her quick thinking in gathering and photographing the evidence before the crime scene is destroyed catches the eye of NYPD's crippled forensics genius, played by Denzel Washington. Naturally, the two end up working together to solve a string of increasingly macabre murders.
     Fortunately, "The Bone Collector" was better than I thought it would be. It did what most good suspense-thrillers should do, and set up all the clues the viewer needed to identify the killer and motive. At the same time, it avoided some of the more hackneyed plot twists that I dreaded from the start. I was a bit disappointed that I was able to pick out the killer within the first half-hour of the movie, but then there had really been no good reason for me to pick out who I did.
     Both Washington and Jolie get fairly interesting character to work with in this film. Washington's crippled genius is both arrogant and stubborn, but he manages to remain sympathetic. Jolie gets to portray her character's progression from uncertain novice to confident expert, although the timeframe of the movie requires that this progression move unrealistically fast. This same fast-forward progression applies to the relationship between the two characters, and in this case is a little hard to buy into.
     The supporting cast, including Ed Harris, Queen Latifah, and several others whos names I can't remember, provide a significant dose of depth and color to this movie. Most of these characters are the police and medical workers who have worked with Washington's character in the two eras of his life. Their relationship with him provides good character depth and occasional moments of comic relief.
     And comic relief is most welcome in this film, because the murders we see are truly gruesome. This makes yet another film to which I must apply the warning: don't see this if you don't have a strong stomach. No matter how tolerant you are of movie violence, this one will probably make you cringe at the very least. Fortunately these scenes are relatively few in number.
     So in the final analysis this was a pretty good movie. It was entertaining, provided at least one good scare, and didn't have too many annoying flaws. For those of you looking for a comparison, there's no way this one rates up with Fight Club or American Beauty, and I liked Three Kings better, but it's definately better than Bringing Out the Dead. And that's all I have to say about that.



Being John Malkovitch

     The first thing that I have to say about "Being John Malkovitch" is that it is a weird, wierd movie. Fortunately I have a certain fondness for weird, and so I really liked this movie. But don't get me wrong, this film had a lot more going for it than simple weirdness.
     Put briefly, "Being John Malkovich" is about a struggling puppeteer named Craig (played by John Cusack) who discovers a portal into John Malkovich's head. After passing through the portal, one gets to experience life through the eyes, ears, and skin of John Malkovich. For fifteen minutes, anyway.
     This absurd premise opens the door for an assortment of equally absurd characters and situations. A few that spring quickly to mind are the seven-and-a-halfth floor, a chimpanzee with deep-seated psychological issues, and a woman named Maxine who can only love those who inhabit John Malkovitch. These are really some of the milder weirdnesses of this movie. I don't feel it would be right to say much more, for fear of spoiling some very funny surprises.
     I don't know if I would have enjoyed the movie as much as I did if all it had to offer was absurdist comedy. But it also portrayed several very complex, conflicted (and, okay, weird) characters. The aforementioned Craig suffers throughout the movie from an adolescent-style unrequited love. His wife Lotte, played by Cameron Diaz, goes from overly-loving vet to complete John Malkovich addict. And then there's Maxine, who spends so much time perfecting the role of ice-bitch that she can't seem to remember how to really feel.
     All three roles are written and acted very well, and it's refreshing to see both Cusack and Diaz "in the raw," without the benefit of the usual makeup and styling. Both manage to seem very much like real people, only maybe a bit more screwed-up. John Malkovitch also deserves commendation for a job well done, both as a somewhat fictionalized version of himself, and as... well... a few other things.
     In addition to the bizarre premise, the plot is really quite solid. There is something of a mystery (even aside from the question, "Why John Malkovitch?"), and buried deep underneath is a story of redemption. But don't expect it to turn out okay for everybody. In the end, some human failings pay off, and some don't.
     Final verdict: this is a good one. Very funny, especially if you have a taste for the absurd. And there really are some good philosphical questions lurking in the dark corners of this movie, so you should have plenty to talk about when it's over (no Steve, I still haven't figured out what's up with the piece of wood). So even if "Being John Malkovitch" doesn't make it out of the small, art-house theatres, it's worth the effort to track it down and see it.
     Malkovitch, malkovitch malkovitch Malkovitch malkovitch malkovitch malkovitch malkovitch malkovitch malkovitch. Malkovitch malkovitch "Malkovitch Malkovitch Malkovitch," malkovitch malkovitch malkovitch malkovitch malkovitch. Malkovitch.



Fight Club

     By the time I got around to seeing "Fight Club," I had already been told again and again what a good movie it was. Most of my friends had seen it the week before, and were doing a good job of building it up for me. This is always pretty dangerous, since it's hard for any movie to live up to overblown expectations. But "Fight Club" pulled through, and proved to be a very entertaining and well-done movie.
     The movie's story, told primarily as one long flashback, revolves around the character played by Edward Norton, and his dissatisfaction with his workaday life. Sick of filling his life with a boring job and the constant acquisition of IKEA furniture, he starts to find relief in terminal illness support groups. And just as this particular addiction becomes soured by the presence of another "tourist," a chance meeting with Brad Pitt's character, Trevor, changes his life entirely.
     What starts as a friendly fist-fight grows into the fight club, where an ever-increasing number of powerless men find strength in beating each other up. And as time passes, fight club takes on a life of its own, and gradually becomes something more.
     If you've heard anything about this movie, you may have heard about the "big plot twist." And here comes my first point of praise, because I did not see "Fight Club"'s little surprise coming until it was nearly spelled out in block letters. Someone who pays a little more attention than I did will probably figure it out sooner, especially since the filmmakers drop many huge, obvious hints throughout the film. But I only caught this in hindsight. So I was impressed with the execution of this major plot twist, and pleased that there were still a couple more surprises in store even after the big one came out.
     One way in which "Fight Club" stands out from the rest is it's awareness of its own medium. By this I mean that we are reminded at several points that this is a movie, and the characters within know there will be an audience watching. This effect is used sparingly - enough to be clever without entirely removing our ability to stay in the story.
     The anti-consumerism and anti-corporate messages of "Fight Club" are pretty hard to miss. Whether or not you take them to heart is entirely up to you. Ultimately I liked this aspect of the film, even when I disagreed with it. I might have faulted this movie for being preachy had not the filmmakers done a good job of showing both sides of the coin - that the messages held therein held some amount of both good and bad.
     Though I definitely recommend this movie to most, I have to apply a warning to that recommendation. As you might imagine, "Fight Club" is a very violent movie, and not for the squeamish. There is a great deal of bloodshed and downright brutality. If you are likely to be offended by this sort of violence, or by the occasional scenes of nudity, then this is not the movie for you. Otherwise, it's quite the anarchy-riddled rollercoaster ride.



Bringing Out the Dead

     Because I couldn't convince my dad to see "Fight Club," this weekend's movie was "Bringing Out the Dead." If you haven't seen the previews, this one has Nicholas Cage as a paramedic on the fast road to burnout. I heard somewhere that this movie is based on the memoirs of a real paramedic, and this might well explain why the film's plot seemed to be some kind of stream-of-consciousness affair.
     And though there was an underlying plot, it really wasn't much to hold on to. Several elements of the movie suggested possible plotlines, foremost among these being the recurring appearance of a drug called "Red Death." But none of these suggested subplots are followed to any degree. Instead, all we get is the tortuous tale of one man's search for redemption, and its rather predictable conclusion.
     But I don't want to make it sound all bad. The movie was entertaining, and held a couple of good performances. Nicholas Cage does a lot of staring into the camera and looking haunted, and this comes across pretty well, thanks in no small part to the makeup department. But he repeatedly gets his scenes stolen by Ving Rhames, playing a fellow paramedic whos over-the-top Jesus-hailing and dispatcher-flirting provide a drastic counterpoint to Cage's silent self-torture.
     It's important to note here that nearly every character in this movie is completely nuts. Among the paramedics, only John Goodman gets to play a relatively stable individual. Perhaps his constant feeding is meant to be a sympton of job-related stress, but it seems quite mild when compared to the violent outburts of Tom Sizemore's character.
     One of my complaints with this movie is that it tends to leave you with very conflicted emotions. Throughout the movie, we often return to the emergency room, where we are treated with unsettling scenes of human suffering. The ER always seems to be a bustling mob of people bleeding, crying, shouting, fighting, barfing, and dying. And in the midst of all this, the filmmakers choose to throw in a little light comedy, before heading right back into open sores and headwounds. These comedic breaks seem completely out of place. I can take a hospital scene that is disturbing, or one that is grimly amusing, but I can't flip-flop back and forth like that. This is a point where the filmmakers really needed to decide which emotion they wanted the audience to feel, and then stuck with it.
     Aside from these gripes, "Bringing Out the Dead" was certainly entertaining. There were plenty of instances where the injection of humor was better timed, and acted as the comedic relief I imagine they were meant to be. And the film managed to stay visually interesting with some simple but unusual filming tricks. I was also quite pleased that the romantic subplot did not take the easy way out, and thus avoided the predictability of the overall storyline.
     So it was entertaining, and we saw it at a matinee showing, thus it's pretty hard to complain. If you are particularly fond of any of the actors in this film, then go ahead and catch the cheap show. Otherwise, it will probably be worth the cost of the rental sometime next year.



Three Kings

     I have to admit to a certain amount of skepticism when I first started seeing ads for "Three Kings." Something about the combination of George Clooney, Ice Cube, and "Marky" Mark Wahlberg in a movie about the Gulf War just didn't sit well with me. But as I saw more trailers and the reviews started coming in, I decided to give it a try. And I'm glad I did.
     "Three Kings" is a good movie. It probably won't win any awards, but it's worth the price of admission. Other than that, it's hard for me to say anything definitive about this movie. If it weren't so dark, I'd call it fun. It's primarily an action movie, but with some strong, sometimes graphic, anti-violence messages. It tells an uplifting story, while making sure you don't forget all of the depressing stories that remain untold. And it somehow manages to glorify Americans while reviling America.
     And if the story sounds trite, Gulf War soldiers stealing back Kuwaiti gold who find something greater to fight for, it doesn't come across as such on the big screen. The characters' motivations are quite believeable to the very end; almost disturbingly so. Among the actors, Mark Wahlberg gets the opportunity to display the most range, and proves himself more than up to the task.
     This movie does fall a time or two into the realms of corn and saccharine, but fortunately these moments are few. And in the end, I felt that the inevitable character death was really handled pretty well, without any excess plucking of heartstrings. Just watch out for exploding footballs; plot devices like these threaten to turn a movie like this into just another Rambo.
     The one quality that makes "Three Kings" both a good movie, and rather hard to watch, is the "untold" side of the Gulf War which it displays. Not having researched the relevant topics myself, I don't know how much truth lies behind them. But several of the accusations that this movie levels against American policy in the war ring true in my memory. Because of this, I was left feeling a bit ashamed about my country at the movie's close. Selfless deeds of fictional characters do little to alleviate the selfish deeds of a real country. But if you can stomach this kind of anti-patriotism, the reflection is quite worthwhile.



American Beauty

     My initial response to "American Beauty" can be summed up in a single word: "Wow!" I really, really enjoyed this movie, although it's hard to pin down exactly what made it so great.
     In fact, it's difficult to even try to define what kind of movie "American Beauty" is. It will probably end up in the "drama" section at Blockbuster, but somehow this doesn't do it justice. Several reviews have referred to the film as a "dark comedy." It is certainly dark at times, and funny at times, but it is no more or less a comedy than life itself.
     And though this movie is not a mystery, it sets up an excellent little whodunnit for the audience. Every commercial and trailer for "American Beauty" ends with the sound of a single gunshot. In the first minutes of the movie, we are told straight out that Kevin Spacey's character, Lester Burnham, will soon be dead. And for the rest of the film, we are treated to a tangled web of motives, leaving us with a variety of likely suspects. By the conclusion, I was nearly ready to believe that anyone could fire the gunshot that would presumably end Lester's life, maybe even the one-armed man.
     "American Beauty," in short, looks beneath the veneer of contentment put on by a particularly dysfunctional suburban family. After years of cruising on autopilot through an increasingly joyless marriage, general familial estrangement, and a thankless, pointless job, Lester decides to retake control of his own life. This decision is galvanized by his attraction to his daughter's friend Angela, taking the part of Lolita to Lester's Humbert Humbert. Meanwhile, Lester's wife Carolyn, played by Annette Bening, deals with the same set of problems by finding comfort in the arms of another man, and their daughter Jane suffers through fairly typical teen-age angst.
     It might go without saying that Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening give excellent performances, but I'll say it. Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening give excellent performances, as do the rest of the cast. Of particular note was Thora Birch, playing Jane. Between the lines provided and her own acting, she portrays a refreshingly realistic teenager.
     It would be all too easy to turn this into a high school english paper, and go on for pages about the symbolism and underlying themes of "American Beauty." But I'll spare you most of that. But I would be remiss if I did not give some indication of the many ways in which the title and tagline, "Look closer," are woven into the film. Nearly every character and plot device in the film hides something, or multiple somethings, beneath the surface. And as the movie progresses we are given a chance to look closer and see what lies underneath. That which appears beautiful turns out to be ugly, and that which appears plain is beautiful in its own way. Or at least that's what you think is coming. "American Beauty" saves itself from this trite formula by making things just a little bit more complex than all that.
     The concept of "beauty in all things" has certainly been done before, and I still find it hard to swallow. Nice as it sounds, I can't completely convince myself that it's true. And though we see a different view of beauty from each of the characters, one among them does see beauty in everything. But he portrays such a passion and intensity that I'm almost willing to be convinced that he's right. And I still don't know exactly what to make of the roses.
     And in the end, I can't sum this movie up in any easy way. It was deep, it was funny, it was sad, uplifting, thought-provoking, and frightening. But I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it will no doubt make some good dinner-table conversation. What more could I want from a movie?



Mystery Men

     I may have to take a break from seeing comedies for a while. The ones I've seen so far this summer have been pretty good, and I'm running out of different ways to say "It's funny." The movie which has inspired this bit of rumination is "Mystery Men," the theatrical superhero spoof based on the Dark Horse comic of the same name.
     Whether or not you'll like this movie may depend on your existing feelings about the superhero genre. I, for one, collected comics as a kid, "The Uncanny X-Men," to be specific. And though I've mostly outgrown comic books, I still have a certain appreciation for the genre, and all the quirks that come with it. In more recent years this has led to my enjoyment of clever superhero spoofs like "Freakazoid" and "The Tick" (both Saturday-morning cartoons). So I came into Mystery Men expecting a good dose of over-the-top superheros and supervillains, goofy super-powers, and cliched plot lines. Suffice it to say that I was not disappointed.
     The basic plot of Mystery Men revolves around a group of superhero-wannabes living in a world of real superheros and villains. But when the city's lead hero is kidnapped, it's up to the posers to save the day. Leading the cast are William H. Macy as "The Shoveler," who's a damn good shoveler, Hank Azaria as "The Blue Raja," a master at throwing silverware, and Ben Stiller as "Mr. Furious," who, well, gets super angry. All three do an excellent job, and somehow manage to look like they're taking themselves seriously. But they don't really take themselves seriously, and that keeps Mystery Men from becoming the very thing it mocks. The same praise applies equally to the remaining stars, whose equally oddball superhero personae appear over the course of the movie.
     Special mention must be made of Greg Kinnear and Geoffrey Rush, who ham it up as arch-nemeses Captain Amazing and Cassanova Frankenstein. Both characters are absurd, larger-than-life epitomes of their archetype, with just a bit of a self-effacing twist thrown in. And if it seems that it's the image of our noble superhero which gets twisted the most, it is only because the stereotypical villain - killing his own men and destroying the world without reason - is already a parody of itself. Both roles (and I'll let you guess which one's the good guy and which the bad), are played to the hilt, and Kinnear and Rush very nearly threaten to upstage the main characters.
     It's hard to tell at times during this movie what parts are meant to be jokes and which aren't. Though I'm by no means certain that the writers intended it this way, the safest bet is to take everything as part of the spoof. In this light the moments of trite dialogue ("Maybe they like you for who you really are."), the convenient coincidences ("Well there's this old armored car at the junkyard..."), and the plot cliches ("You killed my father, prepare to die!") that would make us cringe in most movies can make us laugh instead, because it's all part of the joke, right?
     And to cover the rest of the bases: The special effects are good, and avoid taking center stage. The sets and backgrounds are quite moody and evocative. I would have liked the music more if I hadn't already tired of Smash Mouth's "All Star," and its incessant radio play. Even the normally objectionable moments of toilet-humor can be granted some leeway in this movie. After all, what do you expect when you have a hero who's power is super-flatulence?
     This movie's appeal is inevitably more limited than that of some other comedies this summer. Those who didn't grow up with Adam West's Batman and "Spiderman, Spiderman, does whatever a spider can" may not have the right frame of reference to really enjoy this movie. But for those who will "get it," Mystery Men provides plenty of humor and a dash of action, and will easily stand alongside this summer's hits.



Bowfinger

     Now that it's been two whole days since I saw "Bowfinger," I'm having trouble deciding what to say in this review. Not that this movie is particularly forgettable, but it is light comedy, and so doesn't inspire days of deep contemplation.
     To get right to the point, I liked Bowfinger. It was funny and cynical, and I found myself laughing or smirking at the appropriate places.
     The plot revolves around a group of Hollywood wannabes, led by Steve Martin's titular Bowfinger, who are making one last shot for the bigtime. They already have their ideal script, so all they need is a big-name action star to make it a blockbuster. But of course it's not that easy...
     Much of Bowfinger's comedy relies on the lampooning of Hollywood and all that comes with it. And from Scientology to cel phones to the casting couch, there's quite a bit of material to fuel the comedic fires. I imagine there may have been jokes in this movie that I just didn't get, because I'm too far from Hollywood circles, but in general the humor was widely accessible to anyone who watches movies and has ever seen an episode of "Entertainment Tonight" (or "Extra" or "Access Hollywood..." take your pick). But if you really don't know anything about the process and culture that lie behind these newfangled moving pictures, then you should probably give this one a pass, for fear of understanding neither the cynical premise nor the fleeting site gags, nor anything in between.
     As with any farcical movie about movies, it can be hard to tell at times whether Bowfinger is subtly joking or honestly falling into some Hollywood rut. Do the characters seem one-dimensional because they're portraying one-dimensional people? I'm not sure myself. Certainly Steve Martin, while doing an excellent job, has little room to maneuvre as a conniving two-bit director with a grudgingly tacked-on "heart of gold." But then I must admit I generally don't watch comedies for their in-depth character studies, so what am I complaining about?
     Perhaps only that Steve Martin ends up looking a little cardboard cutout-ish compared to Eddie Murphy, who pulls double duty as vain and paranoiac action star Kit, and the innocently goofy and humble Jiff. Though I've never thought of myself as an Eddie Murphy fan, I'm devoting this paragraph to telling you what a good job he did in Bowfinger. Murphy brings life to two equally eccentric but very distinct characters, and makes them both very funny. Perhaps these characters are not much more multifaceted than any of the others, but Murphy plays them to the hilt and keeps you (or me, at least) laughing too hard to worry about it.
     And since Bowfinger is, as you may have guessed by now, a comedy; and since it is, as I've said already, funny with just a bit of a mean streak; and since you're not me, you'll probably not care about the lack of character development that I've already spent far too much time analyzing. So if you are in the mood for comedy, go ahead and see this one, particularly if you like Steve Martin (and regardless of any previous opinions you might have of Eddie Murphy). I failed to mention that it is basically an upbeat movie, with characters who are easy to like despite their flaws. And with that I'd better stop, before I plague what was meant to be a very positive review with further criticism.
     "Gotcha, suckas."



The Blair Witch Project

     Despite rather humble origins and a low budget, The Blair Witch Project has benefitted from no small degree of hype. Since first reading about it a few months ago in "Rolling Stone," I'd been increasingly looking forward to seeing this movie. Consequently, I probably had too high expectations of just how scary this movie would be, and was somewhat dissapointed. Nonetheless, it was a great film.
     If you've seen any of the ads, trailers, or posters for this movie, then you know the basic premise. In 1994, three film students hiked into the woods near Burkitsville, Maryland, to film a documentary about a local witch legend, and were never seen again. One year later, their footage was found. But the first extraordinary thing about this movie is that the above scenario is not the plot, or a description of the storyline. Instead, it is the totality of what you will see in the theatre. Displayed on screen for your viewing pleasure is nothing more nor less than the footage shot by those three hikers during their several days in the Maryland woods.
     It's hard to properly review this movie without giving anything away. It contains numerous suprises, to say the least, and I'd hate to ruin any of them. But I'll try to say what I can without getting into details.
     The Blair Witch Project is, obviously, a horror movie, and a good one at that. And as with any good horror movie or haunted house, the best way to enjoy it is by preparing yourself to be scared. Don't necesarily expect to be scared, as this was what left me feeling unfulfilled at the fadeout. But if you prepare for a scare, it's that much more likely that you will be scared (paradoxical, yes, but I've generally found it to be true).
     But as I've said (twice now), I wasn't as scared as I'd hoped to be. This movie was not so much scary as chilling. Though the film progresses very quickly, it provides few of the expected nerve-jangling scares. Instead, Blair Witch provides many ominous details, which seem to become more frightening the longer one ponders them.
     And that leads to what is in my opinion this movie's best trait: it leaves you thinking. Although there's little time to wonder about the events depicted as they are still unfolding, I found myself deep in thought and conversation for quite some time after the theater lights came back up. The most I can say is that this film left a lot of questions, and you may not be entirely comfortable with the answers you come up with yourself. But that's what makes it an enjoyable, chilling experience.
     So if you are planning on listening to my suggestion, then see this movie. But first check out the website, http://www.blairwitch.com. The link really does work, though sporadically. In the "mythology" section of the site is contained some interesting background material that will help you appreciate some elements of the film. I presume that some of this info would have been included as voice-over or introduction to the documentary, but never got recorded. Whatever the reason for it's exclusion from the material we see on the screen, the timeline info is really quite valuable. I haven't looked at much of the other background on the site, but most of it will probably only work to enhance your appreciation of and involvement with the film. But do not read "Heather's Journal" before watching the movie, as it will spoil some frightening surprises. Rather, read it fully after watching the film, as it adds some unexpected twists to the whole experience.

     This is the end of the review, mostly. You should go see the movie now. Everything from here on out may detract from the fear factor of this film. Instead, come back and read the next bit after watching the movie, and it may increase your appreciation of the film. But don't read it now, unless you are of particularly delicate constitution, and want to hear a few things which may make it easier for you to watch the movie in peace. So just in case you are reading this part without watching first, I'll continue to avoid giving away any surprises. Stop reading now.





[Semi-Spoiler]





     What you may have known before watching the movie, and almost certainly figured out if you stayed to watch the credits, is that this movie is not a true story. I tried to avoid any mention of this question above, in the hopes that viewers might go in thinking it true, and thus experience a heightened fear.
     But in truth, this was just a rather clever approach to film-making, and the three "film students" are all alive and well, and presumably looking for more acting work.
     In most ways, however, the events depicted on screen were more or less "true." The three actors were indeed responsible for 100% of the filming and sound recording. Very little of the dialogue was scripted, and none of the actors had any idea what they'd find in those Maryland woods. Much of the emotion you see on-screen is genuine, particularly the fear.
     The bizarre and frightful events which transpire were engineered by the director and crew, and generally came as a surprise to the actors, or so I understand. Apparently the film's disturbing ending was not even conceived until well into the shooting.
     All this, in my opinion, makes this film all the more interesting. As a movie it is entertaining and chilling, but as a work of film-making it is really very outstanding. I spent nearly as much time wondering how some of the movie's events were engineered as I did wondering what things were supposed to have meant within their fictional context. And though one might come to think that an actor's ability is not well-represented when the fear is real, this perspective actually increased my opinion of the talented cast. The largely ad-lib nature of their performances made everything feel very genuine, to the point where I could not tell which scenes were "acted," and which were simply the actors' natural responses to their situation.
     More information on the unusual nature of the filming of Blair Witch can be found on the Artisan and Haxan web sites, both of which should link from the movie's site. They freely admit to its fictional nature, although the movie's primary site gives no hint of falsehood.
     Now go see the movie again. I'm pretty certain I didn't catch everything the first time around.