Back Rowe Reviews
Real Time Movie Reviews from the Back Row of a Theater

Fantasy

Avengers: Infinity War (PG-13)

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Directed by: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Starring: Robert Downey Jr.
April 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The old adage about the third time being the charm certainly holds true for Avengers: Infinity War, the third film in the series and arguably the finest Marvel film to date. So what was the difference-maker here? Story. The screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely pulls together the threads of myriad storylines from the back catalog of Marvel films and manages to give each of the heroes a piece of the narrative pie amid a sprawling, planet-hopping adventure. Although character development (which was at least attempted in the individual spotlight films) is tenuous in most cases, the one individual who is fleshed out is villain Thanos (Josh Brolin). Due to his formidable physique, Thanos is an intimidating antagonist in the mold of Darth Vader. However, what makes Thanos a fully-realized villain is that he has genuine motivations stemming from a surprisingly sympathetic backstory. From the moment his home planet was ravaged, Thanos has been desperately searching for the six Infinity Stones, which will give him the ability to regenerate his world. The bad news is that Thanos’ plan will wipe out half the life-forms in the universe. This wide-scale culling has some shocking repercussions at the end of the film, which contains a heart-stopping The Empire Strikes Back (1980) style cliffhanger. Thanos’ galactic scavenger hunt provides an engaging story structure that makes the sundry action scenes and character moments cohere. Many of the film’s passages approach epic status; proof positive that Marvel has perfected the formula for its flagship property. However, for all its achievements, Infinity certainly has its fair share of flaws. For starters, Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) is completely out of character in the movie (that ridiculous mustache means he’s from the Mirror Universe, right?) and squanders the team’s best chance at defeating Thanos with his thirst for revenge. Also, Vision (Paul Bettany) is a total wuss—isn’t he supposed to possess god-like powers? Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) is far more powerful in the film and ends up saving Vision on countless occasions. And where’s Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner)? Or Everett Ross (Martin Freeman)? Granted, with the ever-expanding stable of Marvel heroes, it’s nearly impossible to service everyone. Although the story is a fairly strong chain, there are a few weak links. For instance, wizard Wong (Benedict Wong) magically transports a gigantic assailant to a glacial wasteland at the end of a massive melee. So why didn’t he just do that at the beginning of the battle to forestall the large-scale destruction and to prevent Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) from being abducted? Contrived! Another bit of weak scripting involves the Wakanda storyline when Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) orders the shield to be opened, which allows an army of creatures to flood inside the dome. Panther does this to prevent the creatures from overloading the wall near Vision’s position, which is flawed logic. Why not just redeploy troops to defend that part of the wall? Since a percentage of the creatures are being cut in half by the dome, it doesn’t make sense to open the door and let them all in. Fighting part of an army is better than fighting all of the army, right? Somehow this basic logic escaped the writers. The introduction scenes are a lot of fun, especially the meeting between Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Strange. It’s gratifying to see how their instant antipathy gradually morphs into “professional courtesy.” Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) is handled masterfully in the movie. Banner is constantly at odds with himself and his alter ego. The question of who’s controlling whom takes a fascinating twist here: up to this point, Banner has had a hard time turning Hulk off, now he struggles to turn him on. Infinity is one of the rare Marvel experiences where the story holds its own against the top-notch, mind-blowing FX. This has created a serious challenge for the sequel, which will have to find a way to live up to this film. If IW2 is anything like this movie, we’re in for a treat.

Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars

Solo: A Star Wars Story (PG-13)

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Directed by: Ron Howard
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich
May 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The Premise
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While trying to find his long-lost girlfriend, a brash, young pilot falls in with a band of thieves, a self-styled gambler and a gigantic shaggy creature.

The Evaluation:

In the wake of the polarizing debacle known as
The Last Jedi (2017), Star Wars fans from Coruscant to Tatooine were filled with trepidation over the new character spotlight film, Solo: A Star Wars Story. Those concerns were certainly justified in light of Solo’s turbulent genesis; directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The Lego Movie) were replaced by Ron Howard six months into the production. Also tempering fan expectations were pre-release rumors that Disney had already written the film off as a loss. Tremors in the Force notwithstanding, the resultant film is a well-acted, well-directed tale that somehow manages to underwhelm despite its lavish ($250 million dollar) production. Not only is Solo a return to the universe we know and love, it’s also a radical departure from the timbre, texture and tropes of every other cinematic SW adventure. First and foremost, Solo is an origin story for one of the most popular characters in the SW panoply, Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich). We witness Han’s heartbreaking separation from the love of his life, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). We have a front row seat for the initial meetings between Han and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), a scene that echoes their reunion in Return of the Jedi (but is far more violent), and Han and Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). We get to see how Han makes the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs and it makes sense…sort of. We also see how Han wins the Millennium Falcon from Lando in a game of sabacc during the anticlimactic denouement. During this disingenuous scene, Han claims that his victory is “fair and square” despite the fact that he owes Lando a ship from when he lost a game earlier in the movie. But perhaps Han’s debt is cancelled after he repeatedly saves Lando’s life. At its core, Solo is a heist movie. Some of the action set pieces are spectacular, like the freight train caper on arctic planet Vandor 1, and the teeth-jarring journey through the Kessel maelstrom, which looks like it was borrowed from the “final frontier.” As a story centered on smugglers, pirates and sinister syndicate tycoons, the look of the film is appropriately grimy, gritty and seedy. Howard takes a bulldozer to Lucas’ “lived-in universe” and then covers it in mud, snow and sand. Though Howard’s monochromatic palette is a sly way of matching style with subject matter, the movie is drab for the sake for being drab. Character’s faces are flat and washed out (with low saturation and little if any contrast) throughout the entire movie and even outdoor scenes are shot during overcast conditions. This dim and dreary aesthetic, which will surely be lauded by critics as a triumph of formalism, actually detracts from the film’s enjoyment since it requires spectators to squint through long stretches of the movie just to make out what’s transpiring onscreen. Still, the directorial virtuosity on display here is astounding, and, in many respects, surpasses the finest efforts of the franchise’s stable of high-profile directors. Though it blazes a bold, new trail for the saga, Solo will go down as more of a miss than a hit. Ironically, as a movie riddled with obligatory allusions, Solo is a heist yarn where the story sabotages itself.

The Breakdown:

Directing- Howard’s insight serves him well in his first foray into the SW universe. His direction is sure-handed and reveals a sensitivity and reverence toward the existing canon that was largely missing from Last Jedi. As an Academy Award-winning director, Howard’s acumen, experience and vision are evident in every frame of the film. Other than the movie’s lighting (see: Cinematography), I have no qualms with Howard’s direction. You might say that the circle is now complete since Howard, who was but a learner in Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973), has taken his first step into Lucas’ much larger world as an undeniable master of his craft. One wonders if the director had a hand in casting Paul Bettany (who co-starred in Howard’s A Beautiful Mind) to play villain Dryden Vos. There can be little doubt that he was involved in casting his brother, Clint, to play Ralakili.

Acting- While on the subject of casting, each actor perfectly embodies the part they were selected to play. Ehrenreich has Han’s insouciant, devil-may-care attitude down pat. Glover, however, pushes his portrayal of Lando too far—Billy Dee Williams was charming and confidant while Glover has too much swagger and is frequently annoying. Woody Harrelson’s Tobias Beckett is one of the most complex and refreshingly realistic characters in any SW film. Clarke also delivers a well-measured performance as a misfortunate young woman forced into servitude by nefarious criminals. Sadly, Thandie Newton’s Val is a disposable side character who has little impact on the story. Another blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part is Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt), who looks like a supersized version of an Alien chestburster. Longtime SW performers, Warwick Davis and Anthony Daniels (trivia: this is the first SW film sans droids R2-D2 and C-3PO), have brief cameos here. The most interesting new face in the cast is Erin Kellyman, who plays the leader of the Cloud-Riders, Enfys Nest.

Story- Even though Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan have delivered a unique vision of the SW universe, their script contains some significant problems. Solo is so preoccupied with cramming quotes and references from the earlier (later chronologically) movies into its narrative that the paint-by-numbers plot (i.e., “and here’s where Han meets Chewie,” etc.) consistently upstages the original story concepts. Some elements work well, like the significance of Han’s dice (which is a nice tie-in with Last Jedi), and others don’t, like how Han comes by his last name. It’s clear that the Kasdan’s have a firm handle on both SW lore and crime films. However, their twisty plot is as clear as Mimban mud and the ending is far too obtuse and protracted. And speaking of protracted, the film (which runs 2 hours and 15 minutes), is way too long. Cutting some of the chatting and gambling scenes would’ve shortened the film and made it tighter all at the same time. The gasp-inducing cameo after the final confrontation is the highlight of the movie—the only time we feel any genuine terror. But the thrill quickly abates and the potentially exhilarating storyline goes absolutely nowhere…a microcosmic description of the entire film. Still, Solo is an enjoyable respite from Jedis, lightsaber battles and the Force. There’s more to the SW universe than these elements, as Solo ably demonstrates.

Costumes/Make-up- The costumes are well-tailored, particularly those seen at Vos’ reception and inside the various gambling establishments.

Cinematography- Bradford Young does fine work for the action sequences and establishing shots on the various planets, especially the Falcon’s bumpy landing on Savareen. However, the overall look of the film is bland and lacks color and saturation (see: The Evaluation), a stylistic decision that also falls at the feet of Howard. None of the characters are lit by direct sunlight or any kind of fill light (reflectors) during the entire movie. This flat lighting scheme is unwittingly the perfect choice for a movie almost entirely populated with cardboard characters. And like the characters themselves, the film has no light or dark side…only shades of gray. The lighting design is tantamount to a dimly-lit smuggler’s den, which is fitting when considering the movie’s milieu.

Music- One of the highlights of the film is John Powell’s (Jason Bourne) soundtrack, which is filled with several beautiful, sweeping melodies and makes judicious use of the existing back catalog of SW themes.

Visual FX- Exceptional, as would be expected. The sequence where the squid-like creature is slowly sucked into the maelstrom’s maw is breathtaking. The train hijacking scenes are extremely well storyboarded and executed. In a franchise first, we’re treated to a really nice POV shot from the back seat of the Millennium Falcon as it enters hyperspace. The tableau of a star destroyer surrounded by the maelstrom’s swirling gases is another strong visual composition.

Production Values- Top-notch and top dollar, as would be expected for a Disney tent pole. No problems here.

Movie Magic- Though certain aspects of Han’s origin story and some of the action sequences are thrilling, much of the movie is plodding and dull. Solo’s serious tone makes it a respectable film, but certainly not a fun one. But that’s okay, because this is just A Star Wars Story, not a major trilogy film. As such, Solo has successfully expanded the saga while tiding us over until Episode IX.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars

A Wrinkle in Time (PG)

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Directed by: Ava DuVernay
Starring: Storm Reid
March 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The Premise:

With the assistance of three mystical women, a teenage girl embarks on a dangerous journey through time and space to rescue her father from an evil entity.

The Evaluation:

Having recently read Madeleine L’Engle’s Newbery Medal winning book,
A Wrinkle in Time, I watched the film with a wary eye toward any divergences from page to screen. Though remaining faithful to the source material in most respects, the movie has made some modifications, and in each instance those changes were poorly considered and executed. From a diversity standpoint, the film is an unqualified success. Director Ava DuVernay is an African American woman—double diversity points. The cast of characters from the book has undergone a significant shakeup in the movie, which was to be expected since the world today is much different than it was when Mrs. L’Engle wrote the book in 1962. Half of the characters have switched races and one (Zach Galifianakis’ Happy Medium) has changed genders. Though it’s clear that Disney was out to make a statement with this affirmative action character mash-up, the diversity here seems like a political and media stunt. After all, it’s one thing to create diversity naturally and quite another to go about things in such an obvious and overdetermined manner that your political bias bleeds though the onscreen action like a copyright watermark. Though the casting was excellent for all of the young actors, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and Calvin (Levi Miller) come off far better than Meg (Storm Reid). Overall, Meg is much more brooding and contrary here than in the book, which is a tremendous letdown since she’s the main character. Even though all of the magical “Mrs.” are well cast, Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) is too annoying, Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) is too esoteric and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey) is too…big. The image of the colossal Mrs. Which is preposterous, but her immense size can be taken as a clever metaphor for the status of the actor portraying her—Oprah is, unquestionably, a media giant. The screenplay by Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell starts out well by hewing closely to the book’s plot and dialog, while updating it to reflect the sensibilities of kids in a modern school. Everything is smooth sailing until the kids Tesser (beaming through space/time at warp speed, to employ Star Trek parlance). The planet concept for Uriel is far too grandiose; it takes the book’s description of a verdant paradise and turns it into a CG video game landscape. The scene where Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) transforms herself into a giant flying leaf is unexpected, yet utterly ridiculous. Though exhilarating, the ensuing magic carpet ride sequence is gimmicky and seems like it was included just to give the leisurely story a much needed adrenalin boost. The whole sequence is oversaturated and overblown and looks like the trailer for Avatar 2. The kids’ arrival on dark world Camazotz (dumb name that’s hard to pronounce), cues another action sequence that wasn’t in the book—the cracking landscape and violent windstorm sequence is just another whiz-bang action scene that adds absolutely nothing to the movie. The suburban cul-de-sac scene, where kids bounce red balls in perfect unison, is one of the creepier visuals in the movie and is well executed. The rest of the movie is pretty much a disaster. We never get to see the business district on Camazotz, nor the CENTRAL Central Intelligence Building. Disney should’ve spent less of its budget on meaningless action scenes and more on decent sets for the back half of the movie. Although the invisible architecture superimposed over the bright, sleek antechamber walls (which requires Mrs. Who’s glasses to see) is cleverly realized, the interior of Mr. Murry’s (Chris Pine) prison chamber is something out of a 60s drug trip and isn’t utilitarian in the least (it has no bed, sink, etc). The entire section of the book where Meg convalesces under the magical ministrations of aliens with tentacles doesn’t appear in the film—a significant loss. The final confrontation with IT has overwrought FX and is storyboarded like one of the protracted battles in the LOTR films. And speaking of protracted, the movie’s denouement is painfully long. The book ends before the characters return home, which was a wise choice. In the movie, Mr. Murry apologizes to Meg for putting his career before her; it’s a sequence that feels forced and unfounded and is made worse by Pine’s awkward acting. The many reunions and embraces at the end of the movie are overboard and uber-schmaltzy. The movie wraps up just as a Hallmark movie would—happy ending writ large. Bottom line: Disney’s Wrinkle freelances when it shouldn’t and skips some key material from the book. This big screen treatment of L’Engle’s book goes too big in many places and fails to capture the tangible magic and unbridled creativity that permeates every page of the book. L’Engle’s masterwork deserved a far better fate than this uninspired effort. Though it pains me to say, Disney’s Wrinkle is a miss…so miss it.

The Breakdown:

Directing- It’s bitterly ironic that DuVernay, a female director, consistently eschewed character development in favor of big budget action sequences that amount to little more than visual fluff. The emotions at the end of the movie are downright mawkish. A disappointing effort.

Acting- Due to the writing, most of the characters are cardboard cutouts of living, breathing characters. This is particularly true of Witherspoon’s portrayal of Whatsit, which blends her characters from Legally Blonde and Big Little Lies into an overly perky, yet ultra-critical, caricature. I would’ve expected Pine to bring more to his role; his performance is off-kilter and cursory. Surprisingly, the kid actors deliver better performances than the film’s many seasoned stars.

Story- The story has too many action scenes, too few character scenes and the ending is a maudlin mess. The film’s lack of magic starts with the script. It baffles the mind, and breaks the heart, to consider how Disney has perverted L’Engle’s timeless fantasy tale into pedestrian drivel with scant imagination and magic.

Costumes/Make-up- The outfits for the three “Mrs.” are well done, especially Whatsit’s flowing gowns.

Cinematography- The gorgeous framing on Uriel is the movie’s high point visually; everything else is fairly standard.

Music- One of the highlights of the movie is Ramin Djawadi’s fanciful and cheery score. The gorgeous orchestrations with accompanying choir during the Uriel scenes add immeasurably to the magic of this section of the film.

Visual FX- Top dollar, but overdone. See review.

Production Values- A lavish Disney production, but too much of its budget was spent on eye-candy visuals rather than on convincing sets. See review.

Movie Magic- Depends. Young kids, 10 and under, may enjoy the movie. However, judging from the reaction of the teens in the theater I attended, they thought it was pretty lame. With tenuous characterizations and oversimplified situations rife with teen peril, adults will probably find the film insufferable—even those who grew up reading the book, which is a real shame. An even bigger shame is that the movie focuses too much of its attention on jaw-dropping visuals rather than on human qualities like courage, faith and love. As such, the film will have no relevance or staying power.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars

The Shape of Water (R)

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Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Sally Hawkins
December 2017


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The Premise:

While American and Russian agents seek to exploit a recently discovered aquatic life form for their own purposes, a lonely mute woman falls in love with the creature.

The Evaluation:

Del Toro, who brought us
Pan’s Labyrinth, two Hellboy films and Pacific Rim, has perfected his craft with The Shape of Water (easily one of the most evocative movie titles ever), a Cold War, trans-species love story told through a skewed filter and delivered with a visual brilliance nearly unparalleled in recent cinema history. So let’s dive right in…Shape has many layers. If you think you’ve figured out what’s going on in the film’s text, there’s always the subtext to consider. The movie uses symbolism, thematic echoes, unexpected reverses, inverted stereotypes and modern parallels to great advantage. One conspicuous bit of symbolism involves eggs. Eliza Esposito (Sally Hawkins) uses an egg timer (in the shape of an egg) when boiling eggs and timing her activities in the bathtub, which also deals with reproduction (female eggs). When Eliza makes first contact with the creature, she gives it a hard-boiled egg as a gesture of friendship. Later, when she copulates with the dubiously compatible creature, Eliza consummates (literally and figuratively) the egg subplot, since having her physical needs met by another has freed Eliza from her tub prison (more symbolism). Eliza’s water habitat is the tub; the creature’s water habitats are the tube and pond. Eliza and the creature merge in three other bodies of water: her tub, her flooded bathroom and the bay of the ocean. Before we leave the egg timer metaphor, it’s worth mentioning that Eliza’s regimented existence is a reflection of our own in many respects, since daily routines and responsibilities (chores, shopping, cooking, working, paying bills, etc) can be their own special form of incarceration. Ironically, Eliza is just as much a prisoner as the creature is—freeing the creature will free her from her self-imposed prison of loneliness. There’s overt symbolism in the various reactions to the creature…when faced with the unknown, some will be filled with curiosity and others with fear (fight or flight). The conservative vs. liberal reactions to the creature are fairly transparent (and oversimplified) and reveal a clear bias against one of those political worldviews. Also clear is the movie’s pro-Russia, anti-America sentiment, which turns the Cold War on its head. American agents (particularly Michael Shannon’s Colonel Strickland) are loud, crass and aggressive, while the Russian agent (brilliantly underplayed by Michael Stuhlbarg, who, along with Shannon, was a cast member of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) is reserved, calculated and sympathetic toward the creature. Strickland’s racist, nationalist, isolationist agenda is abhorrent and is a little too on-the-nose in its portrayal of adherents of the political party in question. Strickland is an angry man who’s in a loveless marriage; contrast his angry and messy love-making with the beautiful bathroom coitus between Eliza and the creature. Strickland also makes inappropriate advances toward Eliza, racist comments about Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) and tortures the creature in his own, private Guantanamo (another political parallel). When the creature bites off Strickland’s fingers, the military man is more concerned with retrieving his severed digits than his wedding ring. His ring, and marriage by extension, isn’t precious to him (LOTR’s Gollum in reverse). All of this reveals Strickland, not the creature, as the movie’s bona fide monster. One curious side story involves Giles’ (Richard Jenkins) desire to matter in a world that’s passed him by. Giles painfully learns that he’s lived past his shelf date relationally (his attempts at wooing a young waiter implode) and occupationally (the sensibilities of his ad artwork have become outdated). This subplot touches on the ageism that exists in today’s job market and how marketing typically targets the youth of our society. As Eliza’s friend/neighbor/mentor, Giles serves a key role in the plot to extricate the creature. The message is clear; everyone has a part to play in the unfolding human drama. Though there are deeper zones to be explored in the film, this brief overview of the movie’s many layers of meaning should suffice in recommending it as an instant classic…and frontrunner for Best Picture.

The Breakdown:

Directing- Del Toro has delivered a visual masterpiece, which effectively combines a Cold War thriller with a fantasy romance. The formalism on display here is truly staggering.

Acting- The eclectic cast of top-tier performers (Shannon, Stuhlbarg, Jenkins, Spencer, David Hewlett and the brilliant Doug Jones) are completely upstaged by Hawkins’ mesmerizing, deeply-affecting portrayal of the lonely, lovelorn lead character.

Story- The script by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor is equal parts fantastical, historical, meaningful and magical. The allusions to classical Hollywood movies are a nice touch; they tangibly tap into feelings of nostalgia for that era. When taken at face value, Shape is just a fantasy film. However, the story’s many aspects contain plot points that the viewer might not even be aware of—which makes the film such an enjoyable, and immersive, experience.

Costumes/Make-up- The period appropriate costumes are well designed. The style of the creature’s costume hearkens back to the titular monster in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and is brilliantly realized.

Cinematography- While it’s del Toro’s vision that makes the film cohere, it’s Dan Laustsen’s brilliant framing that provides much of the movie’s visual wonder and beauty. Who will ever forget the flooded bathroom love scene?

Music- Another exceptional score by Alexandre Desplat. Many of the cues written for Eliza’s character are whimsical and sublime. The underwater passages, where several flutes combine to produce an otherworldly effect, are moody and moving.

Visual FX- Other than the underwater scenes there are very few visual effects in the movie.

Production Values- Top-notch. Real world elements (with historically accurate detail) are seamlessly juxtaposed with fantastical elements (and even flourishes of the absurd like the refrigerator filled with slices of Key lime pie) to forge a wholly original world.

Movie Magic- Immeasurable. The brilliant visuals, pitch-perfect performances, superlative directing, affecting accompaniment, multivalent story and period appropriate production elements all make for an unforgettable viewing experience.

Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (PG-13)

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Directed by: Rian Johnson
Starring: Daisy Ridley
December 2017


What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The first post-Lucas, Disney owned Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens (2015), was a smashing success.  J.J. Abrams, a self-proclaimed diehard SW fan from his youth, did more than just direct the film; he established the look, feel, tone and style for the new trilogy.  Awakens was reverent to the original trilogy (although it tapped the tropes, themes and events of A New Hope with abandon), and carved out its own unique corner of the SW universe.  With such solid footing and a literal handoff of the baton (lightsaber) from Abrams to the new director (the barely-established, virtually unknown Rian Johnson), Star Wars: The Last Jedi was destined to be a surefire hit.  However, even though the movie will make bank at the box office (as all SW movies do), Last Jedi is a galactic disappointment.  To temper that caustic contention, let me first say that the film’s production elements are stellar across the board.  Sets, costumes, FX, makeup, sound, etc. are all top-notch and should be serious contenders come awards season.  Although we get some occasional stiffness (acting arthritis) from Mark Hamill and the sadly departed Carrie Fisher, the performances are solid enough, especially from the younger actors, to service this action/adventure space opera.  So where did the movie go wrong?  There’s only one area of the movie, indeed only one person, that made this movie fail…Rian Johnson.  Whereas Johnson’s directing choices are satisfactory (save for the scene where a frosted over General Leia (Fisher) floats through space like Mary Poppins without an umbrella), his writing reveals a significant lack of understanding regarding pacing, structure, tone and especially dialog.  Last Jedi features an extremely simplistic and straightforward storyline.  For nearly half the movie, the rebel fleet crawls along at sublight speed (a term borrowed from Star Trek), and the plodding plot perfectly matches its pace.  Much of the story goes absolutely nowhere.  Even worse, it goes in circles without achieving anything at all.  Case in point, when the story becomes mired in a series of scenes involving Star Destroyers taking potshots at the rebel flotilla, Johnson has Finn (John Boyega) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) take us on a side trip to a resort planet (Canto Bight).  This boomerang subplot, which includes a couple of action sequences, a herd of animals, a handful of kids and a new side character, achieves absolutely nothing since the two rebels end up in the clutches of the enemy.  It’s utterly laughable that Finn and Rose are actually surprised when their new friend, DJ (Benicio Del Toro), turns out to be a scoundrel (shades of Lando’s betrayal in The Empire Strikes Back), even though they never make contact with the rebel spy they were sent to meet—the code breaker with the red flower brooch (Justin Theroux).  At the heart of the movie’s narrative ailment is a profound and pervasive identity crisis.  What’s its theme?  What’s its message?  What’s its objective?  One of the major problems with the story is that it has no MacGuffin, save for survival.  With no overarching goal or purpose, the plot casts about in search of some kind of meaning, but since it never finds any, the movie settles for a string of action sequences just to keep the story moving forward.  Ironically, the film is a reflection of its own weaknesses: conflicted characters mirror a conflicted story.  Johnson clearly intends to keep the audience guessing as to the loyalties of the main characters, but while attempting to psych us out, he muddles character motivations and muddies the narrative waters.  Ultimately, the joke is on Johnson since we’re way ahead of him (I mean, Rey actually being tempted to join the Dark Side?  C’mon!).  The story works overtime to depict the inner conflict of several characters.  Is Luke (Hamill) good or bad?  Is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) good or bad?  Is Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) good or bad?  Johnson exerts so much effort on these questions that it becomes exhausting, doubly so since the answers are so painfully obvious.  The mutiny subplot, where Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) defies Holdo and does what he thinks is best for the survival of the rebel remnant, is utterly distasteful and only provides momentary tension in the plot.  Dissension in the ranks doesn’t really suit SW …it’s more of something you’d see on Battlestar Galactica (2003).  Holdo’s character arc is particularly vexing due to her vacillating likeability and consistently illogical command decisions.  Though she makes the right choice in the end, Holdo should’ve taken action much sooner, before so many of her people were killed (plus, a quicker reaction would’ve moved the story along faster and shaved off a few minutes of the film’s too long 2 ½ hour screen time).  At least something good comes from Holdo’s desperate act; besides providing a momentary escape for the rebels, we’re treated to the film’s finest visual effect—a weaponized hyperspace jump.  Speaking of FX, two of the mo-cap characters from Awakens have returned here, with less than impressive results.  Again, we can’t fault the performers or the visual effects artisans for their efforts; the blame lands squarely on Johnson’s shoulders.  The story beat where we get glimpses of Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) fighting some far-off war via a choppy video transmission is a total throwaway scene which is shamelessly shoehorned into the story just to remind kids to buy action figures with her likeness.  The bigger disappointment is Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), who was portrayed as a towering, malevolent shadow lord in Awakens, but actually turns out to be far less physically intimidating and even less sinister than we were originally led to believe (and what’s with that bland, red background in his throne room?).  Johnson wrote stilted, simpleton and self-aggrandizing dialog for Snoke, and one wonders if Snoke’s characterization here is a thinly-veiled dig at President Trump.  Snoke is far too overconfident in his abilities in the Force (and who trained him?) and loves “dialoging” (The Incredibles).  Besides plagiarizing the Emperor’s (Ian McDiarmid) talk track wholesale, Snoke also enjoys playing with his captive (like a cat toying with a mouse) a little too much.  Plus, even though he claims to see everything, he can’t even sense a threat sitting right next to him?  Weak!  Like Boba Fett and Count Dooku before him, Snoke is dispatched far too easily.  Snoke is a poor man’s Emperor.  He’s all bluster with none of the menace.  In short, Snoke is a joke.  Snoke’s Ninja guards are like highly trained Imperial Guards from Return of the Jedi (1983).  This is just one of many callbacks to the original trilogy.  Judging from Johnson’s rigid insistence on rehashing themes, settings and dialog from the earlier SW films, it could be argued that the entire narrative of Last Jedi is one giant pastiche.  Here are just a few examples…  The rebels have to evacuate their base and get past an Imperial blockade (Empire).  Ships that engage in evasive maneuvers to avoid capital ships because they can’t enter hyperspace (Empire).  Luke trains Rey, just like Yoda trained Luke in Empire—and it’s amazing how well Rey fights after just a few lessons.  Near the middle of the movie, Rey enters an obsidian land anus to learn the identity of her parents. Disappointingly, Rey steps into a celestial fun house where she sees countless copies of herself in mirrors that taper to the vanishing point—an utterly superfluous sidebar, and more wasted screen time.  This sequence is similar to when Luke sees his face in Vader’s shattered helmet inside the Dark Side cave in Empire.  Gigantic walkers on a white plain (this time it’s salt, not snow) and rebel troops in trenches defending a base (Empire).  The image of a kid holding a broom like a lightsaber closes out the movie, and he stands in an archway that’s shaped just like the one inside the rebel medical frigate at the end of Empire.  These instances are just a few of the many allusions found in the story.  This doesn’t even include the many shots and lines of dialog that were lifted right out of the seminal trilogy.  Strangely, the ubiquitous gag line in every SW film: “I have a bad feeling about this,” isn’t uttered here.  The oft-repeated opening crawl phrase “spark of hope” is an insipid bromide that’s too reminiscent of A New Hope.  Another area of the film that’s derivative is John Williams’ score, which is a Greatest Hits compilation of his music for the original trilogy.  The quality of the music is predictably excellent, but it’s unacceptable that only about half of the score contains original music.  The post-crawl piccolo solo is identical to the opening of New Hope and signals the banal plot to come.  Though the movie’s shortcomings are many, perhaps the greatest is the horrendous depiction of Luke (I can’t fault Hamill’s acting—he does the most he can with a poorly conceived and written part). For his ham-handed handling of Luke, Johnson should be taken out and tarred and feathered.  Actually, Disney should be baptized in Bantha poodoo for green-lighting this hack script in the first place.  Johnson’s characterization of Luke is an abomination.  Luke is a jaded bully in most of his scenes.  He isn’t likable in the least and is a far cry from the hero we once knew.  Look no further than the Jedi Academy flashback sequences for evidence of this.  First we see the events of that fateful night through Luke’s memory and then through Kylo Ren’s (back to when he was still Ben Solo).  Aside from wasting precious screen time on Rashomon (1950) style he-said-she-said sequences that contain only minor variations, these scenes feature a flawed aspect of Luke’s character.  Let’s apply some logic to these fallacious back stories.  Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader committed countless murders (including the slaying of an entire school of kids, as seen in 2005’s Revenge of the Sith) and yet his son, Luke, can still sense good in him in Jedi. An older Luke senses evil in Ben Solo, who, at that point hasn’t killed anyone (that we know of).  As such, how can we reconcile the fact that young Luke’s steadfast objective is to redeem his genocidal maniac father, while old Luke’s first instinct is to kill his innocent nephew?  This is an emotional knee-jerk of epic proportions.  How could a Jedi Master act in such an irrational manner?  Since he was able to restore his father (Vader), shouldn’t Luke be able to prevent Ben Solo from going down the dark path and becoming Kylo Ren? Have his powers become that weak? Or his mind that feeble? Although Luke finds redemption in the end, the fact that he doesn’t “physically” come to the aid of the rebels cheapens the multigenerational dual and is a significant cheat on the part of Johnson (despite the dramatic mileage and plot twist he gets out of the climactic battle).  The much anticipated showdown between Luke and Kylo Ren features gaps in logic large enough to march a fleet of walkers through.  As someone adept at using the Force, shouldn’t Kylo be able to sense that Luke isn’t quite what he seems when peering down at him from the bridge of his ship (or to put it a different way, shouldn’t Kylo be able to detect Luke’s life force/energy, or the absence of it)?  Further, when face to face with Luke on the battlefield, shouldn’t Kylo question why his old mentor looks exactly as he did while teaching at the Jedi Academy (an estimated 10-15 years earlier)?  Luke’s black beard should be a dead giveaway, to Kylo and the audience, that Luke looks younger than he really is at present.  Also, Kylo knows Luke’s lightsaber is green. And yet, during the confrontation, Luke is wielding a blue lightsaber, which also has a hilt that looks just like the one Kylo and Rey recently ripped in half during their Force tug-of-war. With all of these visual clues, it’s inexplicable that Kylo could’ve fallen for Luke’s chicanery. Again, Johnson’s inexperience shows through during this sequence because his attempt at misdirecting the audience backfired with the creation of these major nitpicks.  Another of Johnson’s mishandled moments is the brief cameo by Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz).  At first we’re elated to see the diminutive Jedi master and then we’re puzzled when he displays an antagonistic attitude toward Luke.  Then we’re befuddled when he calls the sacred Jedi texts a dull read and condones Luke’s desire to burn them.  Yoda is completely out of character in this sequence (as is Luke). Not only does this sadly superfluous scene fail to significantly advance the plot, it squanders the appearance of one of the most beloved characters in the SW mythos.  Plus, it wastes even more screen time and seems positioned just to sell another toy version of Yoda.  Another character that was planted in the movie just to sell toys is new droid BB-9E.  The black robot has less than two minutes of total screen time and only has one pivotal scene. Though not nearly as annoying as the Ewoks (Jedi), the puffin-like porgs are shown squawking far too often in the film and are included here only to generate laughs from the kiddies so that they’ll run out and buy the toy version of the birds.  The porgs, which hail from planet Ahch-To (gesundheit), are certainly cute, but they’re overused in the movie.  In fact, the film is overloaded with creatures, including the large horse type creatures (fathiers) from Canto Bight and the crystal foxes (vulptex) on Crait (again, you can bet that each of these animals will be included in their own toy play set).  You would think that a movie so geared toward kids would be non-stop fun, but such is not the case.  In actuality, the movie has very little humor.  Most of the jokes, like Luke tossing a weapon over his shoulder in a screwball comedy flourish, are forced and fail to strike anywhere near the funny bone.  Worse still, the movie has no heart.  There are very few genuine emotions in Last Jedi. Also, as absurd as it sounds, the only natural acting in the entire film is when the rebel officer touches the white surface and dabs the substance on the tip of his tongue and says, “Salt.”  Everything else is hyperreal and put on for effect.  To be fair, the film succeeds in a few key areas.  Mentioned earlier, the cataclysmic hyperspace jump represents the film’s creative zenith.  The hyperspace tracker, though pilfered from New Hope, is a clever piece of technology that adds some much needed dramatic tension to the film.  On Crait, the red dirt under the surface of salt sets up some brilliant visuals when the rebel ships and walkers engage in combat—the vehicle movement patterns are like an elaborate Etch A Sketch drawing.  One clever character device is the Jedi Link (my appellation), which allows those with Force abilities to establish mental communication over vast distances of space.  The concept does have precedent in New Hope, when old Obi-Wan senses the deaths of scores of people on Alderaan, and at the end of Empire when Luke responds to Vader’s mental projections.  Though unsettling at first, the way one character can engage in a casual conversation with another person who’s standing in front of a contrasting background, is extremely effective visually.  These sequences are well executed and add a psychological dimension to the scenes between Rey and Kylo Ren (and are they related, since their connection is so strong?).  From the outset, it seems as if Johnson’s main objective was to confound the audience at every turn.  However, the employment of a constant string of plot twists for the sole purpose of catching the audience off guard can make a story not only tangential, but ultimately, inconsequential.  As the movie’s sole scribe (and why no assist from a veteran, proven screenwriter, like Lawrence Kasdan?), Johnson proves to be too slick for his own good by focusing on surprise over substance.  Unfortunately, the biggest surprise in the movie is how spectacularly Johnson failed.  In the final analysis, Last Jedi is a parade of disfigured character portraits, haphazard and hackneyed writing and plot holes big enough to fly a dreadnought through. If Last Jedi was converted into a mathematical proof it would be: flawed characterizations plus a flawed narrative equals a flawed film. After this middling effort, there can be no doubt that the Force is in flux.  Will the series pull out of its tailspin for the trilogy capper or will it continue its precipitous descent into the Sarlacc Pit of movie mediocrity (like the prequels, which Last Jedi resembles in many respects)?  That brings up another burning question…is this the worst SW movie ever made?  Actually, does Last Jedi even qualify as a SW film since it feels more like a high budget fanboy film than an authentic entry into the mythos?  Perhaps, due to some cosmic mix-up in The Twilight Zone, we ended up with an alternate Earth’s Last Jedi and they got ours.  Whatever the explanation is for Last Jedi’s myriad missteps, one thing is abundantly clear…the Force is not strong with this one.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars

Coco (PG)

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Directed by: Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina
Starring: Anthony Gonzalez
November 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

For their latest animated adventure, Disney/Pixar has selected main characters of a different kind.  Instead of focusing on toys, cars, fish, robots or insects, they’ve returned to the world of people.  However, not all of these people are alive.  No, the animation studios haven’t gone all zombie on us (although, how cool would that be?).  Focusing on the Mexican people and their Day of the Dead holiday (Nov. 1&2 annually), the studios have given us a glimpse of what life is like in the Land of the Dead.  The story focuses on Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a young boy who wants to be an entertainer like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).  Performing at the local talent show can help launch Miguel’s career, but first, he must borrow a guitar.  But not just any guitar…the signature guitar that Ernesto played during his heyday, before the bell tolled and he met an early demise.  Since he must ask for permission to play Ernesto’s guitar, Miguel embarks on a journey to the other side.  Once Miguel has crossed the petal covered bridge that connects both worlds, he sets out to find Ernesto among the teeming masses of the macabre metropolis.  As he navigates the Land of the Dead, Miguel encounters Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), a lanky, fun-loving skeleton man who serves as both humorous sidekick and voice of reason for Miguel.  Despite his seemingly silly persona, Hector holds a secret that literally busts open the story like a smashed piñata.  Coco’s explosion of color rivals the visual vibrancy of the Finding films.  Though certainly a marvel in its own right, Coco’s prismatic palette pales in comparison to its brilliant plot, which is chock-full of colorful characters and meaningful moments.  This is the studios’ first attempt at spotlighting the customs and values of a minority culture.  Director Lee Unkrich and his team of writers wisely avoided populating the story with clichéd characters and worn-out stereotypes.  This is a deep dive into the hearts and minds of a people devoted to artistic expression, exuberant celebrations, fervent spirituality and, above all, the love of family.  We’re treated to some traditional and modern Latin music including “Remember Me,” a top-tier, tear-jerker that should be a shoo-in for Oscar’s Best Song.  Despite the fact that most of the movie works like magic, Coco has a fatal flaw—it borrows too heavily from other sources.  The film mirrors Back to the Future in several key areas.  Like Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), Miguel wants to be a famous guitar player.  Another point of comparison is that Marty and Miguel both travel through time (actually, the Land of the Dead probably exists outside of time, but close enough).  Also, Marty and Miguel frequently reference family photos to learn clues about their family history and identity…and very existence.  Ironically, the most obvious instance of plot theft in the story involves another Pixar movie.  The trajectory of this film’s villain is so similar to that of Up’s Muntz, the only word that comes to mind is derivative, which I never thought I’d use to describe a Pixar movie.  The film has problems with its premise too. For instance, is it really necessary to travel to the world beyond just to borrow a guitar?  Admittedly, these are minor grievances in a movie that thoroughly entertains.  The film subtly tempers its follow-your-dreams theme with a cautionary tale regarding the dangers of hero worship.  Unkrich does a remarkable job of making morbid subject matter relatable and even, at times, humorous (e.g. the nude skeleton portrait scene).  In the final analysis, Coco is rich in culture and character, sight and sound.  It’s also a heartwarming tale of multigenerational connection between a young boy and his grandparents.  Coco delivers an emotional wallop at the end, just to remain consistent with Pixar’s MO of leaving its audience in tears.  But this time they’re tears of joy. Over a family reunion.  Over fulfilled dreams.  And over a young boy returning home…to the Land of the Living.

Justice League (PG-13)

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Directed by: Zack Snyder
Starring: Ben Affleck
November 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Though there are many comic book companies these days, the big two are DC and Marvel. In addition to producing comic books, both companies offer an array of entertainment on the small and big screens. Though achieving parity (in output and quality) has been a constant struggle for DC, the studio has, at long last, launched a cinematic version of its Justice League property—their answer to Marvel’s Avengers series. Aside from being five years behind their rival studio, DC also failed to properly establish all of its team members in solo movies as Marvel did for the Avengers (heck, they even stuck their neck out with Ant-Man, which turned out to be a crowd-pleasing success). JL members The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) all make their first appearance in the franchise here, sans a cinematic origin story. Rounding out the super group is: Ben Affleck as Batman, Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman and…surprise, Henry Cavill as Superman. I made much of Superman’s absence from the JL poster in my review for Wonder Woman, which I now regret. I should’ve known that the indestructible Man of Steel would emerge just in the nick of time to mete out his particular brand of justice on the bad guys. It would’ve been senseless to exclude Superman from a JL movie since he’s the most recognizable superhero in the world. However, the way Superman is used in the movie is a whole other matter; his limited screen time and inconsequential involvement in the story is a super…uh, supreme disappointment. The story itself, written by Chris Terrio, Joss Whedon and director Zack Snyder, is one of the movie’s biggest drawbacks. The plot is a sprawling mess…it juggles multiple storylines and takes forever to get out of the starting gate. The action sequences are protracted and dizzying, yet are strangely absent of peril. Steppenwolf (the 70s called and want their rock band back) is a serviceable villain, but we already know he will be no match for Superman during their inevitable, climactic showdown. Steppenwolf’s (voiced by Ciaran Hinds) insectoid minions’ only function is to prevent the team from joining forces…because if that happened, the movie would be over in five minutes. The MacGuffins in this film are the three Mother Boxes (dumb name), which serve a similar function as Marvel’s Infinity Stones. Nothing new here. The movie makes an attempt at providing some personal background for each of the JL team members as well as some meaningful exchanges between the characters, like the lakeside chat between Bruce Wayne (Affleck) and Diana Prince (Gadot), but such efforts are still insufficient and perfunctory amid the rapid succession of action sequences. Other ancillary characters, like Commissioner Gordon (J.K. Simmons), are given ridiculously little to do in the film. Likewise, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is called upon to be a Superman whisperer when her buffo boyfriend goes off the rails. Cyborg’s father, Silas Stone (Joe Morton), also has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part. The film’s tone is its Kryptonite. Much of the color has been removed from the picture so that the overall aesthetic is dismal and seedy, like a Batman comic book, but certainly not like a colorful Superman book. The story perfectly mirrors the tone…everything is done in earnest with a level of seriousness that allows only the occasional joke to penetrate the movie’s hard-boiled, world-weary exterior. By way of comparison, JL is less like Wonder Woman and more like Batman v Superman. In that regard, the studio is moving in the wrong direction. Bottom line: JL is a bleak blunder. It’s case in point for why Marvel is winning the comic book war, at least on the big screen. Marvel’s movies have become more colorful and humorous, while DCs have become increasingly dire, drab and dreary. DC’s gloomy outlook may be an accurate reflection of the world we live in, but Marvel’s optimistic, fun-filled adventures perfectly portray the world we want to live in. Is there any question why Marvel’s films continue to be more financially, commercially and critically successful than DC’s? If DC doesn’t step up its game, it will continue to Marvel at the success of its competitor.

The Dark Tower (PG-13)

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Directed by: Nikolaj Arcel
Starring: Idris Elba
August 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Having read the first book of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower novel series in advance of viewing the film of the same name, I’m disappointed in director Nikolaj Arcel’s efforts on several levels. First, only about ten minutes of the movie comes from the first book (primarily the Western scenes). Second, none of the atmosphere (“They could see the smooth, stepped rise of the desert into foothills, the first naked slopes, the bedrock bursting through the skin of the earth in sullen, eroded triumph”), poetry (“Time’s the thief of memory”) or visual vitality (“The guns did their work, stitching the darkness with red-white lances of light that pushed needles of pain into the gunslinger’s eyes”) of King’s book has been translated onto the big screen. Third, in the mold of Percy Jackson & The Olympians (2010) and The 5thWave (2016), The Dark Tower is told through the eyes of a young teenager and has that family-friendly, teen peril vibe to it that belies the book’s somber, sullied soul. Indeed, the book is much more adult (bars, brothels and bullet storms) than the movie and focuses on the exploits of the adults: Roland/the Gunslinger (Idris Elba) and Walter/the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey). Although the stars are well suited (and enjoyably cast against type) to their roles, they both seem bored with the material. Much like his stiff portrait in Pacific Rim (2013), Elba turns in a one-note performance here. McConaughey, who is supposed to be playing a latter-day grim reaper, is not nearly as menacing as he should be in the role. Case in point: Walter verbally abuses one of his minions for having a rat face. By contrast, Darth Vader would’ve just Force choked the offensive underling and signaled for the body to be dragged off. The best part of the film is Tom Taylor as Jake. Jake, who has visions and powers (chief among them is his skill with a pencil and art pad), is an interesting character that, due to the uninspired writing by Akiva Goldsman, et al., never develops into anything more than Roland’s 2D sidekick. In the end, the film’s commercialized story is its Achilles’ heel, since adherence to the source material would’ve made for a subtly nuanced, psychologically complex pursuit film. The end result here is a glorified teen film that attempts to emulate the visual ingenuity of The Matrix (1999) and Doctor Strange (2016), but ends up resembling (in quality if not movie magic) Tomorrowland (2015). King’s early masterwork deserved a much better cinematic fate.

Doctor Strange (PG-13)

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Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch
November 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Doctor Strange
The opening fight scene is like #Inception on speed.
“The man charted a top ten hit with a flugelhorn.” Good point.
#ChuckMangione #FeelsSoGood
The
#StrangeTechnique. Is that in #KamaSutra?
There goes his surgeon’s hands. Time for a
#CareerChange.
“This isn’t medicine anymore, it’s mania.” Listen to her,
#Strange.
#Strange’s scribbled signature is still more legible than most doctor’s.
Good news:
#Strange got his watch back. Bad news: it’s broken.
“Just how experimental is your treatment?” Don’t ask.
“Have you seen that before in a gift shop?” Ha!
#Multiverse
“Study and practice.” Something
#Strange is all too familiar with.
#SlingRing #Strange can’t even muster a sparkler.
“How’s our new recruit?” Cold.
#Everest
“They really should put a warning before the spell.” Hilarious!
#WarningLabel
“Mr. Doctor.” Ha!
#MrDoctor #MrDr
“Time is the true enemy of us all.” True that.
#Kaecilius
The
#Astral fight in the hospital is mind-blowing. A true original.
The mop falling is hilarious.
#MopFall
#MasterStrange Has a nice ring to it.
“That is hilarious!”
#StanLee sighting.
“It’s not about you.”
#TheAncientOne says. Also the opening line of #ThePurposeDrivenLife by @RickWarren.
“I’ve come to bargain.” Ad nauseam.
Final analysis: a mind-bending adventure with just as much philosophy and metaphysics as action.
#Marvel should stop making movies, because they’ll never top this.
Rating:
3 1/2 out of 4. #Cumberbatch shines in an #Inception meets #HarryPotter tale of healing and heroism.

As one of the lesser known characters in the Marvel panoply, Doctor Strange is an altogether different kind of hero since his body is broken and he possesses no superhuman abilities. In lieu of innate powers (or acquired ones like from the bite of a radioactive spider), Strange must rely on his mind, specialized physical training and amassed knowledge of the mystical world that surrounds us and penetrates us (oops, wrong movie). Strange, the forty-third (some lists say fifty-sixth, but who’s counting) Marvel movie, isn’t directly connected to the Avengers—despite the surprise cameo during one of the two ending credits bonus scenes—or any other team or stand-alone hero in the Marvel pantheon. At first glance, the movie appears to be a mélange of narrative devices and stylized shots from the extant body of sci-fi and superhero films, especially the works of Christopher Nolan. The most obvious antecedent to this film, particularly in how its characters can bend cityscapes into Escher-esque labyrinths, is Inception (2010). However, instead of merely manipulating urban architecture, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his fellow spell-casters can terraform structures at will, making floors drop downward into a pit or heave upward into a giant mound while also causing rooftop tiles to undulate like the scales of a slithering serpent. The movie appropriates Nolan’s malleable metropolis concept and kicks it up several billion notches by staging protracted, pulse-pounding action sequences in, on or atop morphing, collapsing buildings. The results are, in a word, mind-blowing. These action set pieces seem readymade for a video game, which you can bet is already in development and will arrive in stores just in time for Christmas. Another tip of the hat (or cowl) to Nolan’s films is Strange’s martial arts instruction, which mirrors Bruce Wayne’s (Christian Bale) training in the first act of Batman Begins (2005): Liam Neeson’s immortal necromancer Ra’s al Ghul is replaced in this film by Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One. The Ancient One and her team of sorcerers control three Sanctums (New York, London and Hong Kong) which are linked by portals that open like the shimmering threshold (sans circular frame) of the titular device from the Stargate TV series and original 1994 movie. There’s also a heavy quotation of the Harry Potter films here in the way Strange learns how to conjure weapons and shields with the incantation of ancient spells. The list of comparisons between Strange and other blockbuster franchises is extensive, but suffice it to say, this film owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to its creative progenitors. That doesn’t mean that Strange is derivative though. Much more than a standard sci-fi/fantasy pastiche, Strange is an amalgamation, indeed a culmination, of the finest story and visual elements the genre has to offer, mounted with lavish detail and delivered as a bold, new vision of what a superhero film can achieve artistically. And while handing out plaudits, let’s not forget the movie’s sterling acting. Cumberbatch is unequivocally masterful at bringing Strange to life. Few actors could modulate from pompous surgeon to physically and mentally broken seeker to whole and fully-actualized hero with such deftness (the only person that even comes close is Harrison Ford, who negotiates a similar character trajectory in the 1991 drama Regarding Henry). Cumberbatch is one of the finest actors of our generation and was the optimal choice to play Strange…the fact that he looks the part only serves to enhance the role. The rest of the cast is equally effective, especially: Rachel McAdams as Strange’s long-suffering girlfriend, Swinton as his mysterious mentor, Chiwetel Ejiofor as his upperclassman trainer and Mads Mikkelsen as former Ancient One initiate turned evil (a la Anakin Skywalker from Star Wars and Lucifer from the Bible). Mikkelsen, who played the villain in Casino Royale (2006) and the eponymous cannibal in TVs Hannibal (2013-2015), is sufficiently menacing here as Kaecilius, a Sith-like henchman whose skin-crawling mystique comes complete with a thick European accent and ashen rings around his eyes. Aside from the movie’s visual splendor and fine performances, the element that elevates Strange far, far above the finest films Marvel has produced to date is its finely-crafted story. Strange is perfectly paced and contains an almost alchemic balance between character beats and action sequences. After a condensed origin story and training section, Strange encounters Kaecilius for the first time about halfway through the film. This first-rate action sequence is an edge-of-your-seat nail-biter since everyone in the audience knows full well that Strange is nowhere near ready to take on the wicked wizard all by himself. This lopsided sorcerer’s duel is basically like an alternate version of Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope, where Luke, not Obi-Wan, confronts Darth Vader on the Death Star. However, with his minimal training in the Force at that point, I doubt the farm boy would’ve fared as well versus the Dark Lord as Strange does here against Kaecilius. To counterbalance its many glum and globe-shattering passages, the film offers several humorous asides, like when Strange borrows books from the closely-guarded library. But these sporadic moments of levity are quickly relinquished for more pressing plot points or metaphysical musings. One such subplot foregrounds a variation of Taoism where an otherwise virtuous person requires a little dark energy in order to live long and prosper. This, and many other thought-provoking scenes, affirm Strange’s status as a master course in philosophy (as well as religion and ethics) since it makes us question everything about the world around us and, indeed, the very nature of our own existence and purpose. This is decidedly heady material for a superhero adventure, and I for one am completely sated from the four course meal (story) plus dessert (action sequences) I got for the price of admission. Strange is Marvel’s missing link: whereas all of the studio’s films boast immaculately choreographed, eye-popping action scenes (which serve as the majority of the plot in many cases) this movie actually features a story with some salience and heft. Strange tells its tale on a grand stage and envisages an even grander view of the universe and our place in it. One of the most dubious comic-to-movie adaptations ever produced is, ironically, the film that has set the bar so high that the studio may never be able to match or supersede it. So now the burning question is: will Strange ever be eclipsed by a future Marvel film? Although it seems highly unlikely at this point, stranger things have happened.

The BFG (PG)

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Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Mark Rylance
July 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The BFG
Sophie is right, the #WitchingHour is 3 AM.
Sophie is breaking all of her “Never” rules.
“That’s where you is, in Giant Country.” #GiantCountry
A collection of #DreamJars.
“I catch dreams.” Interesting occupation.
Beware of #SleepingGiants.
“All the secret whisperings of the world.” Welcome to #DreamCountry.
A Golden #FizzWizard. Like a non-corporeal #Tinkerbell.
#Togglehumper. Bad dream.
Never knew that dreams entered through the mouth.
“Naked at my wedding.” Interesting dream. #DreamJar
“Not in a month of Mondays.” #GiantSpeak
“I am your humbug servant.” Ha!
The #BFG doesn’t like coffee. #PinkiesUp
“I believe in the BFG.”
Sophie holds the #BFGs pinky. Sweet scene.
The bad giants get dropped off at #LukeSkywalker’s island.
Final analysis: a charming adaptation of #RoaldDahl’s story with a tremendous mo-cap performance by Rylance.
Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4. Spielberg’s first film for #Disney is a magical adventure suitable for the whole family.

Every time I see the title of this film the first thing that pops into my mind is “Big F*!@ing Giant.” As you might guess, that inappropriate moniker, despite being an accurate description of the titular titan’s size, isn’t even close to the proper designation for this family film. And not just any family film, mind you, but one based on the children’s book of the same name by Roald Dahl (best known for writing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), produced by Walt Disney Pictures and directed by Steven Spielberg—his first stint for the Mouse House. So what does BFG really stand for? Big Friendly Giant, but you already knew that. The BFG (Mark Rylance in an astoundingly lifelike motion capture performance) is so christened by a young orphan named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), who catches a glimpse of the giant one night during her witching hour vigil…she suffers from insomnia. In order to preserve his anonymity, the BFG scoops up Sophie and whisks her away to giant country. As she adjusts to her new surroundings, Sophie must feel as if she were zapped by Professor Szalinski’s diminution ray from Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989) since everything inside the BFG’s cave dwelling is enormous to her—to aid in the visualization of such disparate proportions, Sophie can fit inside half of a snozzcumber, a slimy, bumpy version of a cucumber. Despite his fuddy-duddy mannerisms, Sophie quickly determines that the BFG is friendly, hence the name. However, she also learns that the other giants in the region are not so friendly because: 1. They’re “bean” eaters (giant speak for “beings” i.e. “human beings”) and 2. The BFG is only about half the size of the aggressive giants, which makes him a rather dubious protector for tiny Sophie. If this all sounds a bit overblown and silly, it is…what else would you expect from a kids’ flick with a giant in it? Though scenes featuring the brutish behemoths may be a tad frightening for the wee ones, most of the movie will appeal to preteens—anyone older may struggle to enjoy the film due to its dearth of character complexity, genuine jeopardy and realistic action. Some scenes, like when Queen Victoria (Penelope Wilton), her retinue and two canines create a carminative chorus during a breakfast banquet, will only elicit laughter from youngsters. Even sequences like when the bullying giants shove the BFG on top of a car and send him hurdling down a slope on a collision course with a vehicle descending the opposing hillside—essentially a giant-sized game of chicken—seem utterly inane and fail to generate any suspense since we know the BFG, as the literal title character, will find a way out of his predicament. The climactic confrontation, where military officers on British choppers capture and transport the man-eating giants to a secluded island, is daffy to the extreme—the giants don’t even put up a fight because any kind of graphic violence could tip the rating from PG to PG-13…and, poof, there goes half the audience. There’s a colossal disparity, in content and quality, between this film and the other Disney (Pixar) movie that’s out in theaters right now. Though Finding Dory is an animated film made for kids, it has many adult story elements. BFG, by contrast, is a live action (with CGI) movie that caters almost exclusively to kids. All of this to say that the movie’s target audience will surely embrace BFG while adults may derive more entertainment from counting the theater’s ceiling tiles than enduring the onscreen frivolity. None of these statements are meant to disparage the film’s creative vision. To be sure, there’s some real movie magic here—the sequence involving the Dream Tree is beautifully ethereal—and the direction, cinematography and production elements are all top-notch. However, despite its charm, whimsy and neck-craning, jaw-dropping scale, BFG will fail to service many adult spectators. So it turns out BFG does have an alternate meaning after all...Boring For Grownups.

Alice Through the Looking Glass (PG-13)

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Directed by: James Bobin
Starring: Mia Wasikowska
May 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Alice Through the Looking Glass
Wait a minute, is this the Alice sequel or the next #PiratesOfTheCaribbean movie?
“Time is a thief...and a villain.” #CaptainAlice
Wow, that’s quite a dress...looks like a butterfly threw up all over it.
Do six impossible things before breakfast. Alice is quite the overachiever.
The Matter of the Hatter. Subtitle.
The Hatter throws Alice out of his house. #DarkMatterHatter
#Unpossible. Similar to an #Unbirthday I guess.
“I am time.” Nice stache.
Time to go further #BackInTime.
“Hatting is a serious business.” #MadHatter
The #RedQueen kisses the #Jabberwocky’s leg. Ick!
A big kiss for the little Hatters.
The de-rusting FX are top-notch.
Final analysis: a mediocre follow-up to the uninspired original. Lacks Burton’s direction and Carroll’s vision.
Rating:
2 out of 4. Some decent creativity, but the plot falls down a rabbit hole into a rote, ridiculous realm.

This return to Wonderland, entitled Alice Through the Looking Glass, has all the regulars back from the first film—Mia Wasikowska as Alice, Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen, Anne Hathaway as her sister the White Queen, the late Alan Rickman as the blue butterfly Absolem, Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat, Matt Lucas as Tweedledee and Tweedledum—along with some notable newcomers like Sacha Baron Cohen as Time, Rhys Ifans as Zanik Hightopp and Hobbit alum Richard Armitage as King Oleron. The conspicuous name missing from the movie’s headliners is director Tim Burton, who merely serves as a producer on this film. The director this time around is James Bobin (Muppets Most Wanted, 2014), and while it’s clear that the creativity doesn’t suffer from the change at the helm, the wit and whimsy so evident in many of Burton’s films is largely missing in Bobin’s trip to Wonderland. If you’re expecting this movie to closely follow Lewis Carroll’s book of the same name (technically Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There), you’ll be sorely disappointed. Just as the first film, Alice in Wonderland (2010), mashed up story elements from Carroll’s works, so too does the sequel. A prime example of this book-to-movie aberration is the Jabberwocky, which made its first appearance in the second Alice book but was introduced during the climactic confrontation in the first film. This brand of fairy tale pastiche, which serves as the movie’s narrative, blends original elements from the source material with made-up events, characters and situations in order to flesh out the plot and provide enough story sinew to hold together the many action sequences. The resultant tale is an uneven, tenuous and convoluted mess that has Alice jumping backwards and forwards through time, like a Victorian Sam Beckett, attempting to remedy events that threaten to destroy time itself…literally. The main plot points here are the search for the Mad Hatter’s family and the reconciliation between royal sisters, the Red and White Queens, and, as would be expected, both storylines are resolved with a cloying display of sentimentality. As for the movie’s creative elements, the Chronosphere is a nifty time travel apparatus but is just a fancier version of the titular time machine in H. G. Wells’ sci-fi classic. The expansive rooms containing the massive cogs that keep time running are appropriately gigantic, but are reminiscent of colossal clockwork structures in dozens of movies ranging from The Great Mouse Detective (1986) to Shanghai Knights (2003). Though the hodgepodge assemblages of spare parts that serve as Time’s assistants are clever contraptions, they certainly aren’t original (perhaps you remember the metallic sidekick Tik-Tok in Disney’s Return to Oz (1985) or the eponymous robot in Hugo (2011), which, incidentally, also co-stars Baron Cohen). These kinds of expedient, cut and paste production elements are the very epitome of what makes this film such a waste of talent and resources…it’s derivative and hollow (like so many other summer tentpole pictures). If there’s a silver lining here it’s that Depp’s creepy, walleyed Hatter is only in about half of the film and isn’t nearly as obnoxious as he was in the first film. Well, there you have it…Looking Glass is a mediocre sequel to an uninspired original. I’ve done my best to dissuade you from stepping through the movie’s magic mirror which will rob you of your hard-earned cash and extract two hours from your life that you’ll never get back.

The Jungle Book (PG)

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Directed by: Jon Favreau
Starring: Neel Sethi
April 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Jungle Book
The opening reminds me of the #JungleCruise ride at #Disneyland.
“Wolves don’t hide in trees.” Good to know.
Nice #TimeLapse photography of the canyon transitioning into its dry season.
“In some packs the runt gets eaten.” Survival of the fittest.
The animals give Khan a wide berth. Not the one from #
StarTrek. #ShirKhan. #WaterTruce
“You will always be my son.” #WolfHug
I love seeing the respect for #Elephants. Magnificent creatures.
#BlackPanther vs #Tiger. Which will win? #Catfight
That molting is as big as a tent. #Kaa is near.
Beware the #RedFlower.
“Trust in me.” When someone says that you normally can’t.
“That’s not a song, that’s propaganda.” Ha!
#ShereKhan’s object lesson of the deceptive #CuckooBird is quite the traumatizing #BedtimeStory.
One of #MowglisTricks saves a young elephant. Touching scene.
#KingLouie really knows how to bring the house down.
#Bear vs #Tiger. Now we’ve got a fight. #ShereKhan #Baloo
#ShereKhan is engulfed by the #RedFlower. Good riddance.
Final analysis: a modern take on #Kipling’s classic with superb voice performances and jaw-dropping #CGI.
A decent family film that sadly lacks the charm of the 1967 cartoon and the magic of the 1942 #Sabu classic.
Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4. The target audience won’t be disappointed but adults may find fewer pros than Khans.

Director Jon Favreau’s (Iron Man) reverent riff on Rudyard Kipling’s adventure classic The Jungle Book is a virtual remake of Disney’s 1967 kiddie feature only with blended live action and computer effects standing in for animated characters and locations. Though this film isn’t the sing-along sensation that the cartoon version is, a couple of the original songs can be heard here (“The Bare Necessities” and “I Wan’na Be Like You,” which is sung by Christopher Walken). However, the musical element is toned down and the action is ratcheted up in this particular Kipling outing. The film is also noticeably more adult than its pedestrian predecessor: both Shere Khan (Idris Elba) and King Louie (Walken) are far more menacing here. Although much of this film’s storyline was lifted right out of the 60’s flick, some story elements have been altered and/or new ones added to stretch out the action to a full-length feature. To whit, the Red Flower line in the “I Wan’na Be Like You” lyric is expanded into an entire subplot in this movie. Another new passage is where Baloo (Bill Murray) convinces Mowgli (Neel Sethi, who not only looks the part but delivers a pitch-perfect performance) into knocking down some large honeycombs to sate the bear’s enormous appetite. It’s an amusing sidebar, but is a poor substitute for the scenes where Baloo teaches Mowgli how to spar and when the two new friends float down the lazy river in the original. Those scenes were charming; the ones in this film are merely amusing. While contrasting the films, there’s no doubt that the gold star for visual splendor and pulse pounding action scenes goes to this film, due in large part to the eye-popping computerized renderings of the menagerie of jungle creatures. The catfight between Shere Khan and Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) is appropriately feral and frenetic and the scenes with giant python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) are effectively hair-raising. Sequences like the water buffalo stampede couldn’t have been achieved with such proficiency even a few years ago, much less with hand drawn animation techniques from the 60s. However, the superior visuals actually invite a possible criticism of this film. Since its narrative is so similar to the 60s animated feature, one wonders if this release was just an excuse to showcase the latest CGI—essentially a technical vehicle for the film’s FX. We’ve seen how green lighting a movie for the sole purpose of showcasing the latest visual effects has produced uneven or outright awful results, a la Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999). This movie certainly isn’t that bad, but it is a tad perfunctory, what with its stock characters and connect-the-dots plot. The finest aspect of the film is its ending, which is a radical departure from the 60s movie and actually has more in common with the 1942 Sabu classic since animals must flee the devastating advance of the Red Flower in both versions. Unfortunately, the new nail biting climax can’t remedy this rote remake. All of this analysis is moot, of course, since the movie’s target audience will embrace the film regardless of the fact that it can’t stand up to the quality of its forebears. And is that such a bad thing? This film has updated the brand and introduced this timeless tale to a whole new generation of potential fans. There’s no downside there. Hardened critics and Baudrillard can go take a hike…or get lost on a jungle cruise.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (PG-13)

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Directed by: Zack Snyder
Starring: Ben Affleck
March 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Batman v Superman
The slow mo descent of pearls is a nice visual.
There’s a reason why it’s called #CrimeAlley folks.
The tripod that hovers over #Metropolis is reminiscent of the alien vessels in #
WarOfTheWorlds.
#BruceWayne runs into a wall of smoke and ash. Shades of #9-11.
The #BatBrand. Similar to #Zorro‘s swashbuckling Z left on his victims.
The #MetaHumanThesis. Sounds like bracing reading.
False God. #Superman
#JesseEisenberg is uber-annoying as #LuxLuthor. This isn’t a character, it’s a caricature.
“The red capes are coming.” It used to be #Russians. Oh well, they’re red too.
“Bruce Wayne can’t break into Lex Luthor’s house.” Why not? He’s an expert detective.
#LexLuthor introduces #BruceWayne to #ClarkKent even though they’ve already met. #Narcissist
About an hour into the movie and there hasn’t been a single action scene. I’m...getting...sleee
How many times does #BruceWayne wake up from a nightmare in this movie?
That rocket launcher is bigger than the guy holding it.
“Do you bleed?” What’s with the heavy effects on #Batman‘s voice? Gimmicky.
#Superman enters the courtroom. I’m having bad flashbacks to #
TheQuestForPeace.
“Criminals are like weeds.” And #Batman and #Superman are like #Roundup.
#LexLuthor throws #Polaroids at #Superman. #JesseEisenberg‘s characterization is better suited for #Joker.
“The world only makes sense if you force it to.” Hmm.
The new #Batplane is awesome.
“I’m a friend of your son’s.” Even though I tried killing him less than an hour ago. #Batman #Superman
#Doomsday looks like the #CaveTroll in #
TheLordOfTheRings. #Superman
“I thought she was with you.” Ha! #WonderWoman #Superman #Batman
“This is my world.” Actually, you’re from #Krypton, #KalEl. #Superman
Cool lasso action #WonderWoman.
Final analysis: an overstuffed, overlong movie w/ some good moments, but fails to live up to all the hype.
Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4. Affleck is surprisingly good in a film that underwhelms by trying to overachieve.

I had every intention of boycotting Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice until a friend invited me to a screening and, out of respect for him and against my better judgment, I sat through the entire two and a half hours of this uneven, uninspired crossover superhero schlock-fest. Why did I want to boycott the movie? 1. Ben Affleck as Batman? When I first heard the announcement, my brain rejected the very notion as if it were mental ipecac. However, now that I’ve seen the film, Affleck is actually halfway decent as the Caped Crusader (certainly better than Kilmer and Clooney) and isn’t remotely the main problem with the film, which leads me to… 2. I had no interest in watching two heroes go at it mano a mano. Perhaps I’m experiencing mental fatigue over the Trump/Cruz and Clinton/Sanders Super PAC character assassinations, but my stance is that we should be fighting a common enemy (i.e., ISIS) rather than each other: the upcoming Marvel movie, Captain America: Civil War, further underscores the significant ideological divide that exists in our nation. Despite the fact that the movie is based on a successful comic book series of the same name, my contention is that the underlying premise here doesn’t befit an action packed blockbuster. Turning up the heat on my argument is the fact that Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer’s script has a chronic case of ADD when trying to decide which hero to focus on—and the addition of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) only exacerbates this issue. The motivation for why Batman and Superman (Henry Cavill) are at odds with each other in the first place is extremely weak, even opaque. Worse still, the heroes are back to being friends the moment the villain (Doomsday) shows up, which is egregiously contrived (the scene where Batman tells Superman’s mom that he and Superman are good friends, right after they just pounded the living daylights out of each other, is utterly laughable). Aside from my initial misgivings about this superhero slap down, other snafus arose while watching the film, most noticeably the lack of action. An hour into the movie I leaned over and asked my friend if we were ever going to see an action scene. The first half of the film, in particular, is painfully slow as the writers do double duty in establishing the characters and milieus of both franchises while also teeing up the events that lead to the inevitable clash between the titular heroes. The crosscutting between storylines becomes exhausting after a while and simply isn’t conducive to an action flick. My least favorite aspect of the film is the irresponsible and irreverent manner in which Batman is rendered. Despite the fact that this version of Batman—who actually kills people and brands his victims with a hot poker—hews fairly close to the comic book, it’s just not the way I prefer my Dark Knight. There’s a scene where a group of frightened women refuse to leave a jail cell because some evil is still lurking about the compound. The threatening presence turns out to be Batman. It’s okay, even preferred, for Batman to instill fear in his enemies, but it’s not okay for him to terrorize innocents. Likewise, and this is completely subjective, I have no issue with Zack Snyder tweaking Superman’s persona to his whim, but I take great umbrage with how the director turned Batman into an animalistic antagonist. Another askew characterization is Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor…his acting choices are, in a word, abysmal. Eisenberg’s rapid-fire speech may have worked like a charm in his portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network (2010), but his freewheeling prattle in this movie is downright annoying. Eisenberg’s quirky speech and spasmodic movements are actually a better fit for the Joker, but after the late Heath Ledger’s spellbinding performance in The Dark Knight (2010), my guess is that the Clown Prince of Crime will be kept on the sidelines for the foreseeable future in Batman movies. Not all is lost since the occasional character moment or pulse pounding action scene makes for a diverting viewing experience, but Snyder’s efforts here are far from fantastic. Bottom line: the kitchen sink plot, shifting POV narrative, Bad Batman, Boring Superman and Laughable Lex story elements have all conspired to relegate this comic book mash-up to the ranks of mediocre superhero films. It’s uncertain whether or not this movie will spawn a franchise of its own, but what is certain is that I will boycott any sequel that features Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. And this time I mean it.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (PG-13)

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Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Daisy Ridley
December 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Star Wars - The Force Awakens 1
Fortunately it’s the former.

There is no “balance in the Force” without the #Jedi. Great to see #MaxVonSydow.
Without the Jedi, the scales have tipped to the Dark Side. Looks like the galaxy needs a new hope. Von Sydow’s inclusion in the cast continues Star Wars’ long tradition of tapping classic Hollywood actors to play key parts: Sir Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing in the original trilogy, Christopher Lee in the prequels.

The trooper with three blood marks has trouble following orders. I can feel the conflict in him.
These markings remind me of the various symbols and designs on clone trooper helmets in The Clone Wars TV series and the muddy handprint on the faces of Saruman’s orcs in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Bread in seconds. #Rey can really hydrate a loaf.
Reference the instant pizzas in Back to the Future Part II (1989).

“The droid’s not for sale.” I’ve heard that before somewhere.
A reverse of Obi Wan’s statement in A New Hope (1977).

The #TIE crash lands on #Jakku. Don’t worry, the scrap will be used to help feed someone.
There’s a later scene where scavengers run straight toward a TIE fighter right before it crashes into the sand. When your livelihood is based on bartering machine parts, you get it while it’s hot, I suppose.

“I am with the Resistance.” Ha!
A funny scene that reveals Finn’s ability to improvise in order to survive.

“The garbage will do.” Hey, she’s still a fast hunk of junk.
Another knowing nod to Hope and Luke’s line, “What a piece of junk!”

“Anything else?” #KyloRen needs some anger management.
At least he doesn’t kill his officers like Vader.

#BB8’s thumbs up is uproariously funny.
The droid reveals its true purpose as a mobile cigarette lighter.

“Yes I do. Every time.” Han has always been a #SmoothTalker.
Han might make a mess in a cantina or step on a gangster’s tail, but he can always talk himself out of trouble.

“Move ball.” #HanSolo has never been a fan of droids. #BB8

Remember “Shut him up or shut him down” from The Empire Strikes Back (1980)?

“It’s all true.” #HanSolo is now a believer in the #Force.
He’s come a long way from his “simple tricks and nonsense” days.

“Women always find out the truth.” The wisest thing #HanSolo ever said.
And judging by his frosty relationship with Leah, it looks like he learned this truism the hard way.

#Rey heeds the #SabersCall.
This is her “cave” scene (a la Luke in Empire).

It’s hard to conceive of a weapon on a more epic scale than the #PlanetKiller. Jaw dropping.

#HanSolo using #Chewbacca’s crossbow is a hoot.
Nitpick alert: You mean to tell me that in all of their adventures together, Han never tried out Chewie’s crossbow?

“Princesses.” Ha!
When a prissy droid thinks you’re high maintenance, you’ve got some issues.

#KyloRen initiates a #MindMeld on #Rey. #SciFiMashUp
Clearly Ren needs some tips from Spock on how to extract information from someone’s brain.

“And I’ll drop my weapon.” #JediMindTrick
A funny scene and a trivia question all wrapped into one…the actor inside the trooper suit is none other than James Bond himself, Daniel Craig.

“Sanitation?” LOL!
The string of one-liners in this movie is also reminiscent of the humor in Hope.

“Escape now, hug later.” Always good advice.
Consider this: if Rey and Finn hadn’t hugged, Han might’ve had a few more seconds to take the lightsaber out of Ren’s hand. That hug killed Han!

A passing of the baton, er, lightsaber between initiate and master.
Although if I were Luke I’d tell Rey to “point that thing someplace else.”


Star Wars - The Force Awakens 2
The opening shot of the dark side of a #StarDestroyer is brilliantly visualized.
This shot sets the tone for the entire movie…it’s compositionally similar to many of the opening scenes in the earlier films, but is shot in a unique style with a completely different mood. It’s a symbolic change that’s emblematic of the movie’s many variations on the theme.

The frozen blaster beam is tight.
A really striking visual that also illustrates Ren’s formidable powers.

The “lived in” universe, i.e. crashed #StarDestroyers, #ATATs, etc, is startlingly realized.
These scenes have a strong sense of place and really capture the look and feel of Hope. There’s a lot of atmosphere and magic here.

“No droid could be that important.” Actually, this one is. #BB8
R2 was pretty important in his day too.

“The droid stole a freighter?” That’s one talented droid. #BB8
Well, I guess if an Ewok can ride a speeder bike…

“They’ll be pieces of us in three different systems.” Ha!
A classic Han line.

“Whatever you do, don’t stare.” Hard not to in that eclectic gin joint.
Isn’t that like trying to ignore the elephant in the room?

“I’m a Stormtrooper.” Where’s your armor? #MajorReveal
Finn takes Han’s advice and fesses up to Rey.

“I like this thing.” Who wouldn’t? #ChewiesCrossbow
It’s got quite a kick.

“That’s one animal pilot!” #PoeDameron
This line is precipitated by an incredible, writhing long take that showcases Dameron’s fancy flying.

New jacket. Same old Han. #HanSolo
It’s nice to know that some things never change.

#Rey escapes #Stormtroopers scurry.
In the Roman Empire, if a prisoner escaped under your watch your life would be forfeit.

“Is there a garbage chute? Trash compactor?” Han would know.
“What a wonderful smell you’ve discovered.”

“Come get it.” Yeah!
Although I wouldn’t be so cavalier in Finn’s place. Riling Ren isn’t a good idea…unless you’re a Jedi.

#R2D2 meet #BB8.
A mechanical meet cute where old meets new. A nice moment.

#Rey finds #LukeSkywalker. #MagicalMoment. #ChillBumps.
The scene reminds me of old martial arts movie where an initiate would have to scale a tall mountain in order to begin the training process with a Kung Fu master. A similar scene in Krull (1983) comes to mind. Also, Luke’s destiny seems to be the last hope for the Jedi order…he’s had that distinction twice now.

Final analysis: a bold new look for the franchise with a plot that mirrors #ANewHope.
And a large helping of Empire too.

Rating:
3 out of 4. Better than the prequels but still lacks the magic of the original trilogy.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…there were three good to amazing movies (Episodes 4-6) and three fair to awful films (Episodes 1-3) from creator, director, writer George Lucas. Now, after a fallow decade for the franchise, after Lucas passed the baton to Star Trek director J.J. Abrams and after Lucasfilm was sold to Disney, Episode VII, known as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, has finally been released amid much anticipation and under a cloud of secrecy that could shroud Bespin.  To bottom line it for you, Awakens is worthy of all the hype.  While Abrams’ riff on Lucas’ space epic lacks the wide-eyed wonder and sheer exhilaration of the original trilogy, it’s a Kessel Run ahead of the prequel trilogy.  In addition to moving the series forward chronologically (thirty-two years to be precise), Abrams has also made the series more palatable for contemporary audiences, just like he did for the most recent Star Trek movies.  Updating the technology, like various space ships and droids (i.e., the sleek ball-like robot BB-8), was a no-brainer. However, an even more important step in modernizing the franchise was Abrams’ sage decision to showcase more diversity in the cast, something that was largely missing from the earlier six Star Wars films (and that Lucas was widely criticized for). The two new heroes are a woman (Rey) and a black man (Finn). (Side comment: I’m really surprised there hasn’t been a racial uproar over the obvious similarity between the latter’s race and name to Huckleberry Finn). London actress Daisy Ridley, in her big screen debut, plays salvage scavenger Rey.  Rey is a distant of echo of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) since her desert home world, Jakku, is a dead ringer for Luke’s Tatooine…with the notable exception being that her planet is littered with derelict Star Destroyers and AT-AT walkers, not Krayt dragon skeletons.  Lucas’ conception of a “lived in” universe is vividly realized in Abrams’ first foray into the Star Wars saga.  The scenes involving Rey inside and outside the junked Star Destroyer are truly jaw-dropping (especially in 3D).  All of the desert scenes (shot in Abu Dhabi), particularly the scene where Rey slides down the sandy slope, are rich in atmosphere and tap into the gritty, organic feel that made A New Hope (1977) so otherworldly and magical.  One of the desert scenes depicts the crash landing of a TIE fighter with two of our heroes aboard: Finn (John Boyega), former stormtrooper turned Resistance fighter, and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), ace pilot for the Resistance.  Isaac (Ex Machina) has a scene with big screen legend Max Von Sydow, who makes a short, yet powerful, cameo at the beginning of the film.  Just as in Hope, the villain is introduced within the first five minutes of the film.  Even though Darth Vader has been replaced by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) in this film, there is a rather important connection between the two antagonists which is the basis for one of the movie’s many mysteries.  Of course, the two biggest enigmas in the movie are Luke’s location and Ren’s true identity—both characters are on opposite ends of the Force spectrum and, as destiny and Hollywood writing would demand, have had dealings with each other in the past.  Despite various side stories and numerous action sequences, the whereabouts of the former Jedi master is the movie’s central through line.  Normally a movie’s MacGuffin is an object or thing, but in this case it’s a person…Luke.  And just as Luke is scarce in the movie, he’s nowhere to be seen on the movie poster, which has generated a great deal of controversy and speculation.  Wild theories abound including one that has Luke inhabiting the dark outfit of the movie’s main villain, Ren.  As for Ren, Abrams made the wise choice to not make him too much like Vader.  Admittedly, the black outfit and wheezy mask are similar, but the comparisons between the two villains diverge from there.  Vader takes out his aggressions on his subordinates while Ren manages his anger by shredding computer terminals with his three bladed lightsaber.  Vader’s voice is deep and heavy on the reverb, while Ren’s vocalizations are thin and tinny, like a poor radio transmission.  The most significant difference is that Vader is a Sith and Ren isn’t—so avers Abrams.  As such, I don’t think there’s any doubt that Vader, the Master, could kick Ren’s Learner heinie.  One of Ren’s character snafus is that, barring severe allergies, he doesn’t really need a mask. Sure, it gives his character added mystique and explains some of his back story, but it’s an utterly superfluous plot element. The scene where Ren removes his mask isn’t even half as momentous as when Vader does the same in the original trilogy. Three mo-cap characters that are worthy of mention are: Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o), Unkar Plutt (Simon Pegg) and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).  Abrams has created photo-real CG creatures without making them too cutesy like Lucas’ alien creations in the prequels…thank the Maker.  Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the most important characters in the film—the entire cast of the first trilogy: Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Skywalker (Hamill), General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker).  It was uber-clever of Abrams to bridge the generations by integrating the original cast into this film. Ford, in particular, seemed to be having a ball this time around and turns in some of his finest acting in years.  Han’s opening line, “Chewie, we’re home” is cheer-worthy and makes for a memorable appearance for the smuggler and his rangy sidekick. In fact, each of the characters, including the droids, is given a dramatic entrance in the film (however, the reason why C-3PO has a red left arm is never explained).  It would’ve been standard, lazy Hollywood storytelling to just have the original characters show up, deliver a few lines and serve as nostalgia fodder for adult audience members.  Fortunately, Abrams, along with fellow scriptwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, wove these classic characters into the tapestry of the film in intelligent and delightful ways and gave each of them a significant role to play in the story.  Despite their heavy action and occasional frightening images, the Star Wars films have always been family friendly (and, fittingly, have focused on a family of characters), and Awakens certainly continues that tradition, as would be expected with Disney serving as owner and distributor of the film.  However, that doesn’t mean this movie is tame…nothing could be further from the truth as the film has plenty of pulse-pounding action. The film also boasts a degree of creative vision that’s nearly unparalleled in cinema history.  Even story elements that are completely unfounded scientifically, like the splintering death ray emanating from the Planet Killer, are mind-blowing in their scope, power and execution.  Abrams’ greatest contribution to the film was his Force-like ability to locate and populate the unexplored spaces within the extant Star Wars panoply. It’s almost as if Abrams and his writers listed dozens of things never attempted in the franchise and then selected a handful of them to build a plot around. The opening minutes are proof positive of this supposition since we’ve never seen the dark side (symbolic, right?) of a Star Destroyer before, nor a major ground assault at night. Most significantly, there isn’t a single space battle in the entire movie…all of the ship confrontations are staged as aerial assaults on a planet’s surface. The movie also marks the first time that enemy forces have conducted a tactical retreat…something that never would’ve happened on Vader’s watch. It’s possible to analyze this movie until the Banthas come home, but suffice it to say, this film has remained faithful to Lucas’ vision while venturing out into some bold new territory with some incredible new characters. Sure there are plot holes, inconsistencies and nitpicks here, as there are in any movie, but Awakens is a very serious attempt at doing justice to Lucas’ brainchild. Most of the early criticism of the film has centered on the story, which is ostensibly a patchwork reworking of the themes, scenes and lines from the original trilogy, particularly Hope and Empire. But the way I see it, if you’re going to borrow, why not borrow from the best? Whether you appreciate this kind of rehashed, retro-cool plot or not, I’m sure you’ll agree that this film has far, far surpassed the mediocre efforts of Episodes I-III—and how ironic that the characters in the movie are coming out of a Dark Ages (with no Jedi to ward off scum and villainy) just as we in the audience are coming out of one of our own (the prequels). Abrams’ film has resurrected the long dormant, long lackluster franchise with visual panache, an engaging story and some truly unforgettable moments. It has also effectively introduced the series to a whole new generation of fans. Once again, the Force is strong in the Star Wars universe.

Inside Out (PG)

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Directed by: Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen
Starring: Amy Poehler
June 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Inside Out
A high bar, to be sure, but this is certainly among the very best.

“I Lava You.” A sweet animated short. #Lava
At first I was dubious as to where this cartoon was going, because of the singsong nature of its narrative, but in the end this is a memorable, heartwarming short.

Joy meets Sadness. Don’t see them becoming friends.
Sometimes I’m just dead wrong.

“Family Island is amazing!” #CoreMemories
This concept is utterly fascinating and illustrates the importance of the major events and experiences in our lives and how they can shape who we are…positively and negatively.

“I’m starting to envy the dead mouse.” #NewDigs
It’s always difficult to start over in a new area, especially if it’s radically different from what you’re used to. The movie ably captures the feelings of uncertainty, loneliness and loss that can occur during these times of transition.

“Congratulations, San Francisco, you’ve ruined pizza!” #BroccoliTopping
A really funny scene, made even funnier by Anger’s brusqueness.

#MindManuals #LightReading

Train of Thought. Clever!
Even though it’s a little tongue-in-cheek, this is a fun concept.

“Can I say the curse word now?” Ha!
Ironic that anger is often the movie’s primary source of comic relief.

Dad’s #BrainOnHockey scene is frighteningly accurate.
And utterly hilarious! Zoning out while watching sports is an innate ability possessed by most men. Some men have even perfected it into an art.

“We’re deconstructing!” Brilliant visuals.
A very clever scene with some mind-blowing animation.

“There’s Déjà Vu. There’s Critical Thinking. There’s Déjà Vu.”
I think they just wanted to see if the audience was paying attention. Paying attention.

“Take her to the moon for me.” Bing Bong’s sacrifice is moving beyond words.
Grab the tissue box…this is a rough scene.

“For Riley!” Hilarious.

Sadness saves the day!
You just knew it would happen this way. A predictable, yet satisfying, ending all at the same time. Hooray for the underdogs!

What’s poo-berty?

Final analysis: an absolutely brilliant premise that’s executed to near perfection.
In fact, I honestly feel this is the most ingenious concept Pixar’s ever devised…and that’s really saying something.

Rating:
3 1/2 out of 4 stars. A thought-provoking, tender years tale that hits all of the right emotional notes.

Ever looked at someone and wondered, “What’s going through their mind right now?” The creative minds at Pixar Studios took that thought and turned it into an animated feature called Inside Out. The movie focuses on a young girl named Riley and her emotional and mental processes as she deals with a cross-country move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Instead of merely showing us Riley’s emotional struggles externally, director Pete Docter (Up) gives us a glimpse into the girl’s mind in order to observe, firsthand, the full spectrum of feelings she experiences. Riley’s individual emotions are personified by Joy, Sadness, Anger and others. Each of the emotions has a matching personality, i.e.: Joy is infectiously ebullient; Anger is violently explosive, etc. It’s been noted by some leading doctors and psychiatrists that the brain is the executive control center of the entire body. Pixar artists have cannily appropriated that factoid for their story by creating a central control panel inside Riley’s brain…the main operations center where the assorted emotions call the shots for Riley’s every thought, mood and behavior. But Riley isn’t merely an automaton, or a marionette whose strings are pulled by the tiny characters inside her brain. What’s really fascinating about the story is that Riley has volition apart from her own emotions, which is true-to-life since cogitations and cold hard logic can occasionally win out over emotions. The fact that Riley’s choices can override what’s going on inside her brain infuses the story with a great deal of anxiety and mystery since we, along with Riley’s emotions, often have no idea of what’s coming next. In these instances, Riley’s emotions must react to an unforeseen event, like when a life experience creates a core memory. The reverse also holds true as Riley is often deeply affected by her emotions and seems utterly powerless to regulate them. Some of the best twists in the movie occur when our young heroine is overcome by a particular emotion, like when Sadness does a number on Riley during her first day at the new school. This story device, where the action intercuts between Riley’s brain and what’s happening in the real world, generates tension throughout the film and effectively illustrates the disconnect between thoughts and feelings that we each must learn to reconcile. The world Pixar creates to represent the inside of Riley’s brain is truly astounding. The architecture of the mind is based on real science but is organized and visualized in a manner that reflects the thought process of an 11-year-old girl. The different sections of Riley’s personality, as well as the way memories are created, stored and discarded are brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed. But not everything in the film is based on real world science. Some story elements, like the Train of Thought, are just there for fun. This film, which reveals a great deal about the human condition by examining the thoughts and feelings of an angst-ridden preteen girl, will go down as one of Pixar’s finest…which is no small claim when considering the studio’s back catalog of superlative animated films. Inside delivers an emotional wallop that’s rivaled only by the end of WALL-E (2008) and the beginning of Up (2009). The abounding movie magic contained within its narrative, along with its clever conceit, touching story and universal appeal, has insured that Inside will be enjoyed for generations to come. This 15th Pixar film has it all and is a shoo-in for Best Animated Feature and, perhaps, even for Oscar’s top prize. For a movie that’s all about the brain, Inside Out has a tremendous amount of heart.

Jupiter Ascending (PG-13)

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Directed by: The Wachowskis
Starring: Channing Tatum
February 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Jupiter Ascending
Hardly.

Failure agrees with you. Ah, brotherly love.
Ok, I’m just gonna’ come right out and say it…Eddie Redmayne is creepy weird in this movie. His Botox lip job speech was probably intended to give him a tough guy, Marlon Brando in The Godfather vibe, but this character quirk just looks awkward and bizarre. In The Theory of Everything, Redmayne played a character that was in pain but doesn’t show it…here he looks like he’s in pain but isn’t.

“Urges and obligations.” The death of romance.
Yeah, talk about a gigantic buzz kill.

Tatum takes out some grays. Exciting action scene.
The first time around, anyway. Redmayne’s instant replay is redundant and anticlimactic.

Tatum and Kunis encounter trouble on the beam up.

“Sharing has never been a strong suit of your species.” Sad, but true.
No, you can’t have any of my popcorn.

Jupiter is kidnapped in a cornfield by bounty hunter scum.
This scene reminded me a lot of Signs (2002). A far superior film to this one.

Now we know where crop circles come from.
As if there was any doubt…after seeing Signs.

“Where do you get those lightbulbs?” Was that a pickup line?
Are light bulbs the new code word for melons?

“I will never complain about the DMV ever again.” No kidding. These people are as anal as the Vogons.
By comparison, this movie makes The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005) look like the finest sci-fi story ever written.

Jupiter drops a vial. Way to go, you just killed 100 people.
Their essence is spilled all over the deck floor. Talk about wasting already ignominious deaths.

Dino warriors drop in for dinner.
Funny, they didn’t even touch the salad.

The elephant guy at the helm made me chuckle.
I wonder why we’ve never seen an elephant-like alien before in any other sci-fi movie. Maybe because it’s utterly ridiculous looking.

Jupiter is buried in a complex inside Jupiter’s eye. A little too on the nose?
Or tongue in cheek? Or self-indulgent, cutesy writing?

Tatum takes his jacket off. Wait a minute, I didn’t know he was Birdman.
As bizarre as Birdman is at times, at least it has a chance of winning an Oscar.

Final analysis: an ambitious project that ends up being an uninspired knockoff of
Dune.
The story galaxy trots and introduces us to many people on different planets who have little to say and even less impact on the story…a cheap imitation of Frank Herbert’s masterwork of sci-fi literature. This star tour does little to advance the plot and actually makes it bog down with predictable reactions to common situations, all held together by a string of sensory overloading action sequences.

Rating:
2 out of 4. Weak dialog and an insipid plot make this film fall flatter than a crop circle.

When I first saw the trailer for this film I was immediately impressed by the visual effects and the basic premise—a young woman discovering that she’s actually a star princess (hey, it appeals to the fanboy in me that revels in the populist fantasy of The Last Starfighter…or that other little movie about some kid named Luke joining a rebellion in a far, far off place). It did look a tad “teeny” (i.e., The Hunger Games or Divergent) to me and the inclusion of teen heartthrobs Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum did little to dissuade that notion. Normally, in order to give each movie a fair shake, I start out with a rating of 2 out of 4 stars and adjust up or down accordingly depending on the quality of the film as it progresses. In this case, the needle never budged during the entire movie. Clearly, Warner Bros. thought enough of this project to attach some top talent (and some notable supporting players like Sean Bean and Eddie Redmayne) along with topnotch FX to it, but they clearly should’ve spent some more time and money on this confusing, uninspiring story. I believe it was somewhere around the half hour mark when I asked myself, “Where is this movie going?” There’s no McGuffin to drive the plot. There’s no clear-cut goal. Kunis seems completely unaffected by the fact that she’s actually an intergalactic princess and that little gray guys with fangs are chasing her around the city. Tatum’s acting is patently flat and judging from his character’s appearance, his mother was an elf and his father was a werewolf. Eddie Redmayne clearly hasn’t worked out all of the physical kinks from his turn as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything; his stiff gait looks like he’s had a ramrod shoved up you-know-where and his tightlipped speech hints at a Botox session gone horribly wrong. Kunis’ Jupiter is an indecisive, dimwitted ingénue who consistently makes poor decisions, requiring white knight Tatum to swoop in and rescue her. This pattern occurs ad nauseam in the film—i.e., Kunis marrying Redmayne, who she just met, and then nearly signing ownership of the Earth over to him—and is utterly ludicrous. Like the narrative equivalent of a pinball game, the story bounces from one planet to the next and the plot gets murkier with each new locale the characters visit. The bounty hunter subplot goes nowhere, the action scenes are overblown and the story doesn’t take us anywhere emotionally despite taking us on a whirlwind tour of the cosmos. The only thing I found remotely compelling in the film is the notion that the Earth is just a small cog in an expansive industrialized universe. However, this concept is briefly introduced and then quickly abandoned for one of the film’s myriad action sequences. To call this movie a disappointment is a galactic understatement, especially since it was written and directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski, masterminds behind the Matrix trilogy. If, by some fluke of fate, this movie should perform well enough to inspire a sequel, it should be called Jupiter Descending.

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies (PG-13)

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Directed by: Peter Jackson
Starring: Ian McKellen
December 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Hobbit 3

One last arrow. Make it count.
Both Bard and Legolas run out of arrows in the film. Perhaps this is in response to the negative criticism that characters with longbow skills always seem to have an endless supply of arrows in Jackson’s Middle-earth movies…just like action stars always seem to have an unlimited number of bullets when taking out the bad guys.

A promise stone for the Elven princess.
I guess it’s a Middle-earth version of a promise ring.

The showdown at Dol Guldur is spectacular.
In truth, this is the only action scene in the movie that had any degree of heft or emotional resonance for me. This sequence features a clash of titans…all of the heavy hitters from LOTR are here and the melee, though brief, is a frenetic and catastrophic power struggle that effectively sets the events of LOTR into motion. This confrontation is like a chess match between grand masters, while the rest of the battles in the film resemble that electronic football game where players mindlessly collide with each other or aimlessly meander around the board in fractal patterns. And you’re sure to be shocked at who sends Sauron packing.

Ah, Mithril mail. I’m surprised Thorin was willing to part with it.
After all, Gimli avers that a Mithril shirt is a priceless treasure in LOTR. And, bestowing gifts doesn’t seem to be Thorin’s strong suit, especially when afflicted by the dragon’s madness.

Bilbo absconds with the Arkenstone, but is it in time to avert a war?
You can probably tell from the title that the answer to the question is…negatory.

Were-worms. Wait, don’t these things live on Arrakis not Middle Earth?
The inclusion of these gigantic worms, for the one minute that they’re actually onscreen, is highly gimmicky and utterly superfluous. Isn’t the movie already long enough? This scene should’ve been left on the cutting room floor…with the other, much smaller, worms. Corrections: Middle-earth and wereworms, according to David Day’s bestiary Characters from Tolkien.

Way to use your head, giant troll.
There’s little else going on inside its thick cranium, so might as well use it as a battering ram. Who needs Grond?

Alfred is worthless in a battle. Something tells me he’s going to die horribly.
This guy reminds me of that weasel Beni in The Mummy (1999). Correction: Alfrid.

Thorin sees himself drowning in a whirlpool of liquid gold.
Yes, this is a sign that he’s officially lost it.

Thorin asks his fellow dwarves if they will follow him #OneLastTime.
Props go to the film’s marketing team for establishing this line as a hashtag well in advance of the film’s release.

Legolas finally runs out of arrows. Uh-oh!
Not much of an anxious moment, though, since we know he’s a central character in the future trilogy.

Beautiful landscapes on the “back again” journey.
Although, the trek back is far too short for my liking, and Gandalf’s farewell is a tad reserved when considering all that Bilbo’s done to aid his quest. Thanks for nothing, pointy hat!

Final analysis: a rousing finale to the trilogy and an effective bridge to
LOTR.
Thanks to Jackson and his team of writers, watching all six movies, marathon style, will now be a seamless, albeit bleary-eyed, experience.

Rating:
3 out of 4. Sub-LOTR but still a journey worth taking, if only to see how it ends.

Pre-release reviews have criticized this third Hobbit installment as one prolonged battle with a nearly wholesale absence of character moments. It’s hard to argue with that argument. As a trilogy capper, Five Armies doesn’t even come close to approaching the epic grandeur that Best Picture winner The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) so beautifully achieved by diligently excavating its rich source material. Still, to judge Five Armies against ROTK is pretty unfair. This is The Hobbit, after all; the more remedial epoch of the Middle-earth saga. Of course, that qualification just ends up sounding like a colossal capitulation and a pathetic excuse for this uninspired and heartless affair. One of the main contributors to the film’s mediocrity is that it’s the third movie based on one book, unlike LOTR’s 1:1 book-to-movie ratio. It’s evident after viewing this film (which also includes tidbits from Tolkien’s other works as well as Jackson’s own, original story embellishments) that the director stretched the events from the novel as far as he could…many maintain that he shouldn’t have stretched it quite so far. Again, it’s hard to argue with that notion. The preponderance of highly styled, frenetically paced action sequences coupled with an utter dearth of character moments has forged an extremely lopsided experience. By way of defending the film, some would attest that since extensive character development has been established in the first two films, only minor character work was needed here. On this point I strongly disagree since the movie’s action-palooza plot has created a tone deaf entertainment. The only scenes in the film that engaged my emotions were at the very end when Bilbo returns to the Shire. It’s like I’d been watching over two hours of a FPS video game up to that point and only got about ten minutes of actual movie…empty mental calories with only a morsel of actual story. Some will cite Thorin’s treasure trance as a strong plot point, but I contend that it was handled very unskillfully (Bilbo “tells” us, via his conversation with the dwarves, that Thorin is ill instead of “showing” us) and that this whole subplot is far too similar to Smeagol’s descent into corruption and madness—which is far more compelling than Thorin’s. While Tauriel and Legolas’ through lines finally pay off, their sidebar adventures frequently upstage those of the dwarves—the supposed main characters in the story. As far as the fracas with the firedrake is concerned, Smaug’s presence in the film is far too fleeting and feels like an afterthought. Disappointing! There can be no doubt that Five Armies is a first-rate spectacle, but it seems perfunctory at every turn, just filling in the last details from the book while connecting the dots between The Hobbit and LOTR trilogies. I had far higher hopes (somewhere up in the sky with the eagles, which have become the go-to, deus ex machina saviors of our heroes and have been employed far too often in these Middle-earth tales) for this film and especially for the titular battle, which doesn’t hold a candle to Helm’s Deep and isn’t even worth mentioning in the same sentence as the cataclysmic conflagration at Pelennor Field. Bottom line: Five Armies succeeds at passing the baton off to LOTR. Other than that utilitarian role, there’s little else to recommend the film, unless your threshold for enduring protracted action sequences is somewhere up in the stratosphere...which is, incidentally, where you should also suspend your disbelief while watching the film. Some could grouse, justifiably, that the final farewell to this fantasy franchise is less a tribute to the author than it is a Tolkien gesture. Though getting there wasn’t all that I’d hoped it would be, in the end, I’m just glad to be back again.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (PG)

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Directed by: Dean DeBlois
Starring: Jay Baruchel
June 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Dragon race has a literal black sheep.
Doesn’t this competition remind you of a Quidditch match, only with dragons subbing in for brooms?

Free falling sequence is breathtaking.

A new page for the map, an encounter with some unsavory trappers and rumors of war.
Oh my!

“Men who kill without reason cannot be reasoned with.”
A tad platitudinous, but essentially true.

Dragon aviary is a spectacular visual.
The swarm of dragons, comprised of a myriad shapes, sizes and colors, is easily the visual highlight of the film.

Dragon traps...clever.

The alphas lock tusks...the battle of the leviathans.
Doesn’t this scene look like it belongs in Pacific Rim or a Godzilla movie, though?

Toothless flies blind. A matter of trust.
This sequence presents a nitpick, however. Is the Alpha’s mind control only effective when visual contact is established? The eye gate should be irrelevant if the Alpha is engaging in true mind control and not just some hypnotic suggestion. Too technical for a kids movie? Probably.

A new alpha and a new chief. And they all lived...

Final analysis: a logical extension of the first film with many new dragons and a new villain.
And some truly dynamic family moments that serve as the heart of the film. However, the sudden entrance of one family member and the rapid departure of another are extremely contrived narrative choices.

However, the premise takes too long to materialize and the story lacks the magic of the original.
The teen angst angle worked like a charm in the first film, but Hiccup has finally come into his own here, making him a far less compelling character in this movie.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4. Don’t be surprised if Toothless finds a mate in the sequel. Too obvious.

As sequels go this certainly isn’t a jeer-worthy entertainment, and yet it fails to measure up to the first film in several key areas. First of all, the writers expect us to remember all of the characters despite that fact that the original film was released four years ago. Except for the kids in the audience, who’ve seen the first film dozens of times on Blu-ray at home, a refresher as to who’s who would’ve been nice for the rest of us one-timers. The main thing I missed in the sequel is the lore and mythology that enriched the first film. The writers, mistakenly, assume that we’re all experts on Viking customs and have the dragon bestiary memorized by now, but some new cultural tidbits to draw us into the milieu would’ve further enhanced this film. Also, a large part of the fun in the first film involved the training sessions for how to fight and ride various types of dragons. Everyone’s a proficient “pilot” in this movie, and only the bumpy flight on the dragon babies adds any kind of drama to the lives of these experienced dragon riders. Lest we forget, the word “train” appears in the title, so the movie missed the mark by failing to tap into what worked in the first film. Though the CG animation is top shelf, some of the melees are staged and choreographed just like a LOTR film—the epic battle formula is getting old by now. All in all, this is a spirited animated adventure that’s sure to thrill its target audience…if only the adults were equally serviced by this sophomore, and sometimes sophomoric, effort. Final thought: now that the main character has become a man and taken his father’s mantle, can we get a name change already? One thing that should never be uttered in the next movie is Chief Hiccup.

The Lego Movie (PG)

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Directed by: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller
Starring: Will Arnett
February 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Lego Movie
Everything is already done for you…which some would say is the downfall of movies.

LOTR style opening. A wizard recounts a prophecy...in rhyme.

Everything is awesome...until Emmett tries following a woman into a construction site.
Many men have rushed headlong into destruction while pursuing a woman, so it’s not just a Lego thing. Correction: Emmet.

Wild Style and The Special land in the Old West.
Nope, there’s no time for them to say howdy to Rango. Correction: Wyldstyle.

The meeting of master builders is attended by many familiar figures, including the wizard Double Door.
A really funny play on words. The assembly is chockfull of familiar faces from many different franchises.

The double-decker couch actually serves a purpose.

Batman hitches a ride on the Millennium Falcon. Funny scene.
In what other movie can you find such a scene? The “They’re all guys” bit is a hoot.

The Bat pun is humorous.
The deadpan delivery by Will Arnett, who actually does a respectable job of voicing the Caped Crusader, is absolutely perfect.

Will Farrell meets his alter ego. Results in a touching scene.

Final analysis: some funny moments along with the pedestrian ones. A nice emotional payoff at the end.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Not hard to see this becoming a franchise with the myriad sets to choose from.

The animated films that tend to endure are those that work on two levels: cute and funny for the kids, witty and emotionally complex for adults. Pixar has long been the exemplar for how to simultaneously cater to kids and adults in the same movie, but other animation studios have gradually found their own way in achieving this multidimensional storytelling method. The Lego Movie does an excellent job of servicing the different generations in the audience with whip smart humor and pulse-pounding action sequences. Many of the “adult” jokes, some of which contain biting political commentary, will fly right over the heads of younger viewers. That’s okay, because there’s plenty for the youngsters to enjoy here, not the least of which is seeing many of their favorite heroes hanging out together on the big screen. Characters from the Batman, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises all peacefully coexist in this mash-up mayhem, but a pair of original characters, Emmet (Chris Pratt) and Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), drive the story’s action. And then there’s schizoid Good Cop/Bad Cop (Liam Neeson), who steals the show with his mercurial moods and vacillating voices. The voice cast is beyond stellar, including Morgan Freeman, Will Ferrell, Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum and Cobie Smulders, to name just a few. It’s an added treat to hear actors voicing their original characters like Billy Dee Williams as Lando and Anthony Daniels as C-3PO. The final ten minutes close out the movie with a heartwarming resolution, which, for this adult, tied things up with satisfactory emotional closure. There are myriad creative avenues for the writers to explore in the inevitable sequel. We’ll just have to wait and see what new adventure they come up with…or, if we don’t want to wait that long, we can create our own sequel with the Legos we have hidden in the shoebox in the corner of the closet. I won’t tell if you won’t.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (PG-13)

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Directed by: Bryan Singer
Starring: Patrick Stewart
May 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

X-Men-Days of Future Past

Bleak dystopian intro presents a desolate landscape akin to the one in the #Terminator films.
The only thing missing is the metallic men with laser weapons.

Intense opening battle. Wouldn’t want to run into one of the Sentinels in a dark alley.
Speaking of metallic assailants, the Sentinels are truly fear-inspiring, not only in how they appear and move, but in their ability to assimilate mutant abilities. Are we witnessing the birth of the Borg?

Wolvie is transported back to 1973. Is transported through a lava lamp and wakes up on a waterbed.
Groovy!

School’s out, the professor’s sauced and a big, bad, blue wolf is on the loose.

That’s the mother of all JFK conspiracy theories.

“It’s cool, but it’s disgusting.” True, bone claws aren’t nearly as sleek as metal ones.

Whip...lash! Cool visual.

Quicksilver’s run around the room is reminiscent of the Hammy’s sprint in #OverTheHedge.
Although this sort of thing has been done before, especially with the alacritous red clad lad from the DC stable of heroes, this is the most creative and exciting sequence in the entire movie. However, I can see why director Bryan Singer chose to sit this mutant on a couch during the final climactic sequence: Quicksilver’s special ability would’ve swiftly undone every villainous act committed by Magneto and would’ve robbed Mystique’s fateful decision of any urgency and dramatic value.

“Looks can be deceiving.” Truer words have never been spoken...by Mystique.

Beast Hulks out and Logan is stricken by amnesia.

Trask wants Mystique for “research purposes.” Sure!

Charles mindmelds with Logan. The finger placement is a little off.
Correction: mind-meld. I should know better. Speaking of…

Nice ST:TOS episode clip from “Tomorrow is Yesterday.” Another time travel story.
It always pains me to admit when I’m incorrect on this particular subject, but the episode in question is “The Naked Time,” which I originally surmised and then second-guessed myself on. Both episodes use the shipboard chronometer located to the right of Sulu’s station, and I selected “Yesterday” because the Enterprise returns to Earth circa 1969, in a similar manner to Wolverine returning to 1973 in this movie. Based on that plot similarity, “Yesterday” actually would’ve made a stronger allusion since the ship merely skips back in time three days (seventy-one hours to be precise) in “Naked.” In my defense, there’s very little to go off of in these clips (a planet would’ve given it away in two seconds flat) and some segments seem to have been repeated. Apology and apologetics aside, it’s quite ingenious how Singer wove this ancillary, yet pertinent, tidbit into the tapestry of the film. Mise-en-scene at its finest.

Charles uses a Jedi mind trick to get through security.
Just figured I’d provide equal opportunity to the other major sci-fi universe.

Magneto turns a stadium into a mother ship.
This is the only story element in the movie that seems contrived to me. Since Magneto can pull metal from anywhere to create a barricade, absconding with an entire stadium seems a bit excessive. It’s a giant set piece that seems more appropriate for an old style Batman movie, and just seems unnecessary for the story at hand.

Wolvie attacked by rebar snakes.
A very visceral visual.

Logan wakes up to the Golden Oldies. There and back again.

Even Cyclops wears #Oakley shades.
Other than the gray in Halle Berry’s hair, it’s remarkable how little this cast has aged since their first film together back in 2000.

Final analysis: a decent time travel yarn without too many cheesy comic book clichés.

Rating:
3 out of 4 stars. Next up in the Marvel-verse: #GuardiansOfTheGalaxy.

Mixing older and younger versions of the same characters in one movie is an exciting premise, but also a risky one. Part of the movie’s appeal is seeing older and younger selves interact with each other, as in the case of Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy). The constant threat of the Sentinels, the bracing time travel story line and the novelty of the 70s trappings all make for a unique comic-to-cinema tale. Featuring fan favorite Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) as the focal point and linchpin of the plot was a wise choice—this is Jackman’s seventh appearance as Wolvie. Perhaps it has something to do with her Oscar, but Jennifer Lawrence, aka Raven/Mystique, has been given more to do in this movie than in the previous one…I don’t know many teenage boys who are disappointed by that fact. Peter Dinklage is terrific as Trask, an opportunist who misguidedly thinks he’s furnishing the world with the security it desperately needs. If the movie has a weak link, it’s a story that’s so preoccupied with the impending extinction of mutantkind that it’s really a rather joyless affair. Quicksilver (Evan Peters) adds some levity during his five minutes of screen time, but the balance of the movie is an earnest, glum exercise in entropy. The movie is thought provoking at times, pulse pounding at others, but is it truly enjoyable? In the end, it’s just nice seeing all of our old and new friends together in one film, although some are little more than set dressing. So how does this latest film measure up to earlier efforts? It’s the best X-Men film since X2 (2003). However, for the next sequel I recommend lightening it up a bit. Since Jackman and Marsden can sing, how about a few musical numbers? X-Men: The Musical. Stick a pin in it.

Frozen (PG)

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Directed by: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
Starring: Kristen Bell
November 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Frozen

Love the part writing on the opening choral number.

Gorgeous animation on the ice breaking scene.
This sequence harkens back to diminutive laborers swinging pickaxes in a diamond mine in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937)…but without all the “Heigh-Hos.”

The king seeks aid from rolling rocks.
There’s a really good rock ‘n’ roll joke in there somewhere, but chances are it’ll end in a groan. And neither of us wants that.

“Do you want to build a snowman?” Wow, what an emotionally charged back story.
This heart-rending sequence approaches the master level storytelling exhibited in the opening montage of Up (2009). Boy does it hit the mark.

Water fountain ice sculpture and walk across the lake are brilliant.
There’s some superb animation in this section of the film.

My God, the “frozen fractals” CGI is utterly jaw-dropping.
Ditto to the previous remark times a million.

Olaf dreams of summer. Funny how we always long for what we can never have or will lead to our destruction.
Just human, or snowman, nature I suppose.

The duet by the sisters reminds me of the “Defying Gravity” song in Wicked.
Fitting since one of the singers in that song also lends her voice here, Idina Menzel.

Ice queen gives her sister a snow lock like Simon in #TheDragonboneChair.
This book, the first in a trilogy written by Tad Williams, should be essential reading for fantasy lovers.

“My own personal flurry.” Hilarious!
Unlike many of the cutesy sidekicks in the 90s and 00s Disney movies, Olaf doesn’t work too hard to be funny…he just is. He’s also charming, which is more than I can say for many of the “comic relief” characters from the period in question.

Final analysis: a beautifully rendered animated film that features some funny and touching moments.

This film is the perfect marriage between classical Disney magic and Pixar’s storytelling brilliance.
If Disney wants to regain its dominance in the industry, this film should serve as a template.

Rating:
3 1/2 out of 4 stars. Pure animation excellence and well deserving of its Oscars.

Of course, it’s easy to gush in retrospect, but this film certainly deserved the Oscars it won back in March, including the coveted Best Animated Feature Film. Thanks in large part to the creative guidance of John Lasseter, the gap between Disney and Pixar animated films has significantly narrowed. More homogeneity exists between both animation houses at present than ever before and it just makes sense that Disney/Pixar films should possess the same level of quality and creative consistency across the brand…the results have been largely lopsided until now. Besides the eye-popping CGI, there are also plenty of other things to celebrate in the film, not the least of which is co-director Jennifer Lee’s screenplay based upon Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” There are many classical Disney flourishes in the film along with some fresh elements too, like the clever twist on the hackneyed story device where a character can only be reanimated by “true love’s kiss.” The movie boasts the finest musical numbers in any Disney movie since Beauty and the Beast (1991). There isn’t a wasted word or note in any of the songs and “Let It Go,” performed by Menzel, justly deserved the Oscar win for Best Original Song. As incredulous as it seems, this is the first Best Animated Film Oscar bestowed upon the Mouse House: since its inception in 2002, the category has been dominated by Pixar. In truth, I’m much more of a Pixar fan than a Disney fan, but I must admit to being completely won over by the film’s charm, heart and visual grandeur. There can be no doubt that Frozen is a giant step in the right direction for Disney. Hopefully, like iron sharpening iron, the two studios will push each other to greater artistic and dramatic achievements in the future. A little sibling (studio) rivalry never hurt anything, right?

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (PG-13)

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Directed by: Marc Webb
Starring: Andrew Garfield
May 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Spider-Man 2

The struggle to upload Roosevelt is quite intense and features a new slice of back story.
However, this opening feels like a teaser on a TV show like The Blacklist rather than an introductory sequence for a blockbuster.

Spidey carries a cellphone? Don’t recall seeing a pocket anywhere on his suit.
Correction: Cell phone. Strangely, Twitter didn’t underline it in red so I went with it. Guess I should’ve trusted that tingling feeling on the back of my neck instead.

Spidey’s dialog here is campy like in the comics...not sure it translates as well to the big screen.
The first fifteen minutes, in particular, are brimming with cheesy one-liners which engender more eye rolls than chuckles. Sure, Tobey Maguire’s Spidey got off his fair share of witty remarks and puns, but there was something charming about his delivery that’s absent from Garfield’s daffy deluge of doltish comments. Enough blathering on the subject, though, lest I become guilty of delivering the same kind of remedial retorts I accuse the wall-crawler of employing here.

Foxx has a Spidey psychosis.
I’m speaking of Foxx’ character, of course, Max…also known as the villain Eelman.

“Change isn’t a slogan.” Hmm. Must exclude campaigns.
I so want to get up on a soap box here, but I shall refrain.

Sparkles is this movie’s version of Syndrome.

Foxx zaps people with force lightning. He does kinda’ look like the Emperor.

How to distract four thugs with a coffee mug.
Pouring coffee on one of them is always a good start, but how clichéd is this?

Aunt Mae discovers Peter’s web of photos.
Correction: Aunt May. Guess you can tell that I don’t read the comics.

In the Special Projects lab. Did anyone else see the mechanical appendages? Sequel teaser?

Gorgeous scene atop the bridge.
Actually, this is the only scene in the entire movie where I felt Webb took a moment to create some art. Everything else is just crashing, smashing and teen angst.

Peter is a science geek. Why wouldn’t he think of the magnetism solution?

Cop car license plate is 1701.
Star Trek fans will understand the inside gag.

Gwen literally sees time pass her by.

A fist bump for tiny Spidey. Cool scene.
Though the David and Goliath scenario added to the scene’s intensity, the Rhino would have to be a real sicko to take out a little kid, so the tension doesn’t reach the apex it was intended to.

Final analysis: the story, which is a loose association of subplots, takes forever to coalesce.
In fact, I’m not sure there really is a through line here except, perhaps, for Peter’s promise to Gwen’s departed dad, and even that story thread is so intermittent it’s more of a subplot.

Everything seems off here: strange performances, insipid dialog & a weak plot are major debits here.
I’d have to go back and watch the movie again to pinpoint such occurrences, but some of the acting choices and facial expressions in the film really left me scratching my head.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4 stars. A downturn from the first film. Pining for Maguire’s Parker about now.

I would say I’m disappointed by this second Webb Spidey movie, but my expectations were so low after watching the first film that I gave this sequel wider latitude to fail…and it did. Miserably. Granted, the sequel makes a genuine attempt at providing some back story for Peter and Harry Osborn’s (Dane DeHaan) fathers, the fate of Peter’s parents and some additional insights into the life of departed Uncle Ben, but these scenes are just flour and water paste designed to hold the series of action sequences together, which, of course, is asking far too much of dramatic filler. While failing to connect emotionally, these back story elements also contain flaws in logic like that fact that only the Parker bloodline can successfully assimilate the mutant spider venom…one family among the seven billion people inhabiting our world? I’ve heard of designer viruses, but sheesh. This contrivance to produce friction between Peter and Harry, who wants a dose of Spider-Man’s blood to smooth out the blemishes on his neck (can’t Harry afford some plastic surgery?) is utterly daft, and indeed, the Goblin’s presence in the movie is completely superfluous and should’ve been saved for the sequel. Despite repeated attempts at keeping Gwen out of harm’s way, our hero, ultimately, isn’t equal to the task of protecting her. Is that his fault though? In my book Gwen asked for it by failing to heed Spidey’s many warnings and by foolishly circumventing the extreme measures taken to ensure her safety (which include webbing her hand to a car). Maybe it’s just me, but if Spider-Man told me to stay away from a particular building, I’d be three states away. So then, is Gwen’s insistence on remaining in the line of fire a death wish or just plain ignorance? Then, near the end of the film, the wall-crawler tasks Gwen with pushing a button once he gives her the signal (a virtually identical scenario to the one played out by Tony and Pepper at the end of the first Iron Man film). There’s one small problem, however; Spidey and the villain are engaged in a berserker style battle that’s destroying a good portion of the power plant. So the question is, how can Gwen re-start the power grid if the apparatus supporting it has been blasted to smithereens? I could go on nitpicking this film until the next, inevitable, sequel premiers, but I think the point has been made by now. Webb’s Spider-Man films are shaping up to be a drab, joyless, reheated version of Sam Raimi’s trilogy. Will they have any staying power or, like Lucas’ prequel trilogy, will Webb’s films simply fail to stick?

Noah (PG-13)

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Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Russell Crowe
March 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Crowe and Connelly also portrayed a married couple in A Beautiful Mind (2001).

Not too worried about spoiling plot points for this one.

The intro is eye opening...never heard of the Watchers.

Noah is quite the humanitarian...looks out for white flowers and dragon dogs.
Just a guess, but his skill at taking care of animals might come in handy someday.

Noah encounters a Watcher. I wonder if it has any vulnerable spots?

Noah sings a lullaby. Guess Crowe didn’t want those singing lessons he took for
Les Miserables to go to waste.
Not that they did much good, mind you. It’s a good thing all of the canines are sedated on the ark. Otherwise, the howling over Crowe’s singing would make our ears bleed.

A cup of tea with Methuselah. I hope the tea leaves aren’t as old as he is.
Yeah, yeah. My jokes are as stale as the tea.

Amazing time lapse montage.
But it’s used once again during story time with Noah. This occurrence should’ve been skipped in favor of the latter usage of the technique, which has more dramatic impact.

Watchers remind me of
LOTRs Ents...right down to the lumbering gait and booming, gravelly voice.

You knew they’d be coming sometime...all manner of reptiles board the ark. Why did it have to be snakes?

Question: Wouldn’t the sedation incense also effect the humans?
Correction: affect. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.

“The time for mercy is past.” Fortunately God didn’t feel the same way.

Total
LOTR battle to repel the advancing throng.
The 5.1 quake hit right in the middle of this sequence…just added to the overall effect. Who needs IMAX?

Noah’s creation story is brilliantly visualized.
But looses its visual vitality due to the movie’s earlier instance of time lapse photography.

Final analysis: a beautifully crafted film, but a very strange take on the flood narrative.

The film fails as a faithful Biblical account but works extremely well as a fantasy epic.

Noah, a venerated man of faith, is characterized here as a misguided, manic Ahab.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4. Had higher hopes for this one. Can theological accuracy and art coexist? Remains to be seen.

Yes, the beginning of the film contains a warning that artistic license was taken with Aronofsky’s stylized rendition of the Biblical account of the global flood as told in the book of Genesis. Despite the disclaimer, does that give Aronofsky the right to forge the Biblical narrative into anything his fertile imagination conceives (I mean, introducing aliens into a film about Napoleon might seem less odd and would certainly be less controversial)? As if to remove all doubt as to how far the director will stray from the inspired source material, within minutes we’re introduced to the Watchers, which, presumably, are a variation of the Nephilim but with the potential to achieve eternal redemption (except for the one that cracks open its chest because that’s suicide, right?). With the Watchers, Aronofsky sets the tone and expectations for the film right out of the gate. You’ll either accept his fanciful riff on the story of Noah or you’ll outright reject the whole affair as high art heresy. Theological accuracy aside, the story starts floundering once the rain starts falling. Besides a needlessly protracted battle, filmed with all the visual verve of a LOTR movie, the subplot involving Ray Winstone’s devious antagonist is utterly daft. Those who’ve heard the Sunday school story will know that Noah and his family survive the deluge, so the outcome of the fight scene is a foregone conclusion. Consider this a failed attempt at generating dramatic intensity. As for the characterization of Noah as a type of tragic and tortured Ahab, there’s really no justification for it other than the fact that Aronofsky needed something to sustain viewer interest during the 40 days/nights part of the tale. There’s no doubt that Crowe pulls off the neurotic Noah but could conflict have been generated some other way so that the hero of our story stays somewhere this side of sane? Despite the many ways Aronofsky tampers with the original Biblical account, his biggest disservice to the film is his narrative choices, which consistently sideline God during key moments of the story. For instance, in our human minds it seems impossible that Noah and his family could’ve built the ark by themselves, so Aronofsky introduces the Watchers to make the task seem more feasible, effectively eliminating any supernatural agency from the equation. Also, from a man-centric perspective, it doesn’t seem probable that Noah and his family can feed and tend to all of the animals in the world for 40 full days, so Aronofsky devises a way to sedate the animals. If God could shut the mouths of hungry lions to preserve Daniel’s life, couldn’t God put all of the animals on the ark into a state of hibernation? Explaining away divine activity also occurs in subtle ways in the film, like when Noah’s sons raise the main door to seal up the ark. In the Bible, it’s God himself who shuts the door (Gen. 7:16). These instances, along with many others, reveal that the movie’s underlying problem isn’t the creative liberties taken with the story but rather the removal of the hand of providence from appearing in the movie’s broad strokes. I’m okay with whimsical story elements like the Watchers—I wasn’t alive during Noah’s time, so I can’t deny their existence—but I’m not okay with the excision of a divine agency from the heart of the story or human explanations given for miraculous events. After all, if you erase God from the story it kind of defeats the purpose, right? Bible scholars aver that 99% truth is still heresy. The many liberties taken here evince a story that’s deserving of such ignominious status. I had hoped that this movie would finally be the perfect marriage of an artistic, commercial film with a story that’s faithful to the original text. Unfortunately, this movie isn’t the consummation of those desires. Now all I’m left with is the sinking feeling that this movie was a missed opportunity of biblical proportions.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (PG)

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Directed by: Ben Stiller
Starring: Ben Stiller
December 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Walter’s wink is rejected. The joys of online dating.
And has product placement in a movie ever been as front and center as eHarmony is here?

Lots of
Ally McBeal like flights of fancy, one of which features a poetry falcon.

The last
LIFE, a missing photo and a meet cute.

Don’t touch Mitty’s Stretch Armstrong.
I punctured mine as a kid and got the green monster guy as a replacement. Those toys were supposed to be puncture proof…leave it to me.

Am I way off base here or should Mitty check the wallet for the missing negative?
Refer to Jeff Goldblum’s line in Jurassic Park after the T-Rex smashes through the fence.

The
Benjamin Button fantasy is humorous.

Mitty finds a thumb in Greenland.
Does that mean he has a green thumb?

Does Iceland really have a Papa John’s?
Another shameless, and dubious, product placement.

Searching for ghost cats in the Himalayas.
BTW, did Mitty ever submit a vacation request at work?

Mitty’s mom saves his wallet and his
LIFE.
Mom = Shirley MacLaine. Her “Oh, by the way…” meeting with Penn is contrived beyond belief.

Final analysis: a sweet film that appeals to the daydreamer in all of us.

This life-affirming film reminds us that we’re all extraordinary & that life is an adventure.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Directed by Stiller, the film is inspirational but predictable.

A feel good film based on James Thurber’s classic and the original 1947 movie starring Danny Kaye, the new Mitty is endearing and ennobling but is also exceedingly overly simplistic in the script department. There’s no character complexity and no narrative nuance here. Everything is buttoned up just as you’d expect it to be. Though painfully two-dimensional at times, Stiller’s Mitty is a revealing character study of a man trapped inside his own mental prison, however elaborate a prison it is. Mitty’s attempts at breaking out of self-imposed strictures, routines and modes of behavior is half the fun of the movie, and in our increasingly isolated society, I’m sure many audience members can identify with Stiller’s portrayal of a highly intelligent and creative individual who’s constrained by social inadequacies, whether real or imagined. The other half of what makes the movie fun is the globetrotting to Iceland, Afghanistan and the Himalayas, all of which were filmed on location in Iceland. So if an uncomplicated, warm fuzzy fest is on today’s movie menu, order up the Mitty with a side of popcorn and you’ll be completely satisfied.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (PG-13)

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Directed by: Peter Jackson
Starring: Ian McKellen
December 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Peter Jackson sighting before the first line of dialog.
The director, taking a cue from Hitchcock, has made cameos in each Middle-earth movie to date.

A “chance meeting” at Bree. A nice noir-ish setup.

Whitey meets with the necromancer at Dol Goldur. Not a pleasant portent.
Had a brain cramp in the theater…should’ve known how to spell Dol Guldur.

Don’t know that I’d chance Mirkwood without Gandalf.
In fact, I’m absolutely positive I wouldn’t.

Bilbo pulls a Pippin by plucking at a web.
Hobbits are nice folk, but they’re not exactly the sharpest swords in the armory are they?

Bilbo above the forest...one of my favorite scenes from the book. Beautifully realized.

Creepy spider scene isn’t nearly as skin-crawling as the bug scene in Jackson’s
King Kong.
Which is actually a good thing.

Imprisoned Dwarf yells “Bilbo” and everyone in the audience says shhhh. Now that’s funny!

Dwarves in Barrels. Sounds like a board game. It would make a heck of an amusement park ride though.

“This is not a nice place to meet.” Ha!
It’s all about Sylvester McCoy’s delivery here.

Lots of decapitations in this one. The twitching Orc is a bit much.
This type of twitching is probably the only thing orcs and chickens have in common.

Lake Town is brilliantly visualized.
This is actually an understatement. The design elements here, with a gelid river writhing through the quaint village and snow gently falling from the melancholy sky, have created one of the more immersive environments in all of Jackson’s Middle-earth; second, perhaps, only to Rivendell.

Random observation: Evangeline Lilly looks quite fetching with Vulcan ears.

“I have the only right.” Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Bard.

Arkenstone equals MacGuffin: Bilbo’s purpose is revealed.

Treasure under the mountain makes Scrooge McDuck’s vault look like a piggy bank.

Athelas. Remember that from the first
LOTR?
Need another hint? Kingsfoil.

Nice walnut pillow. I guess the people in Lake Town really are poor.

Legolas is like a Jedi in this one.
But are his powers here a little too unrealistic? I mean, he’s more formidable here than in the LOTR films…and he’s not even supposed to be here since Legolas doesn’t appear in Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

Final analysis: A weaker ending but a better overall effort than the paint-by-numbers first film.
By weaker ending I mean the creation and cohesion of the giant golden image of the dwarf king. Contrived and improbable.

Some creative departures from the book here, but most of them work just fine.

Rating:
3 out of 4 stars. Smaug’s comeuppance and the Battle of Five Armies yet to come. Stay tuned.

Bottom line: This film is a marginal improvement over the first Hobbit, but certainly isn’t on par with the LOTR trilogy. There are numerous departures from Tolkien’s book and some are incredibly intense, like Gandalf’s showdown with the Necromancer at Dol Guldur, while others are highly questionable, like the barrel scene. In the book and 1977 animated film, the barrel scene is a tranquil passage, but in the film the momentary respite from the incessant perils of their journey is transformed into a protracted action sequence storyboarded with an eye toward a possible video game release. Jackson gets a bit cutesy here, like Lucas did with most of the action scenes in his prequels. Still, other elements in the film are nearly transcendent, like the eponymous dragon, which is startlingly brought to life by Weta Digital and Benedict Cumberbatch’s eerily malevolent voiceover. Smaug definitely lives up to its billing as the movie’s deliciously duplicitous drake. So will the third Hobbit installment supersede the first two films? If wishes were dragons... Hopefully Jackson will bring the quality of the third film up to the level of the LOTR while bridging the gap between trilogies. When I tell you that Jackson needs to up his game, I’m not just blowing smoke.

Thor: The Dark World (PG-13)

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Directed by: Alan Taylor
Starring: Chris Hemsworth
November 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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With apologies to MC.

The dark elves...those are called goblins, right? Total
LOTR opening.

Loki wants his birthright, gets a dungeon instead.
Echoes of Jacob and Joseph’s stories in the Bible.

Thor vs. Goliath. Short fight.

Something about planet Vanaheim reminds me of the prototypical worlds seen on
Stargate SG1.

Portman enters the titular dark realm. Something tells me Amidala is no longer on Naboo.

Thor and Portman beam up. Welcome to Asgard.

Predator guy deactivates the Gungan shield protecting Odin’s fortress.
Sorry, mixed my movie metaphors on this one.

Stan Lee wants his shoe back.
Eh, he can afford a replacement.

Selvig streaks at Stonehenge. Thank God for pixel blurring.

Loki vs. four dark elves. Thor vs. Predator.
The fight schedule really fills up here…much like it did in The Avengers.

Thor hangs his hammer on a coatrack. Hilarious!

Convergence circles of the nine worlds are sweet.

Nice ending twist.
Or twist ending.

Final analysis: story took a long time to get going and wasn’t all that engaging once it did.

Certainly not the worst superhero movie ever, but far from spectacular.

The plot is a pastiche of
LOTR, Star Wars, Star Trek and even First Knight. Not much originality.
In the case of the latter film, I reference the shared scene of a launched flaming arrow igniting the pyre atop a floating raft.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Not nearly as enjoyable as the first film, but not without its merits.

This film just rolled along and at movie’s end I was kinda’ like “is that it?” Though the movie is an enjoyable entertainment, I never once felt emotionally engaged, never once felt that our hero was in any real jeopardy and felt that the story, for all its high-end FX and well choreographed fight scenes, is just ho-hum. Hopkins gives the film appropriate gravitas, as he did in the first film, and Tom Hiddleston serves as an effective wild card element in the story. Hemsworth and Portman are exceedingly cardboard in their roles…a major disappointment. One other thought: London keeps getting picked on in sci-fi/superhero movies (Star Trek: Into Darkness, Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer, etc). Let’s pick on Miami or Dallas for a change. Poughkeepsie?

The Wolverine (PG-13)

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Directed by: James Mangold
Starring: Hugh Jackman
July 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Logan is in the box...River Kwai style.

How about some extra crispy Wolverine as an appetizer?

Guess it’s true what they say...a Wolverine can take down a bear.

Why does Wolvie need a sword? He already has six blades.
Ceremonial, I suppose.

A scrub in the tub, some grooming and there’s the Logan we know.

The old man’s adjustable bed is awesome! Who needs memory foam?

“Time for you to go back to your cave.” Them’s fightin’ words.

Many deaths at the funeral and an assist from the Asian Hawkeye.

Logan treats his bullet wounds on a bullet train.
Sometimes I just can’t help myself.

Fight atop the train is spectacular!

Mission to Mars it is.
Not the mediocre 2000 movie with Gary Sinise.

Beware the blonde with the acid breath.
Always good advice.

I knew the bit about the planted chopsticks.

I’d gladly chop a fallen tree for that smile.
Especially if I had Logan’s physical prowess.

Logan is a ronin--a good description of his existence.

Doing open-heart surgery on yourself...ouch.
Apparently Wolvie took an extension course in heart surgery before joining the X-Men.

“Is that all the men you brought?” Clint Eastwood would be proud.

Wolvie’s taking on more arrows than Boromir.

Did Poison Ivy cross over from the DC universe?

A giant adamantium samurai...now things are getting cartoony.
The big metal guy reminds me of the giant robot in the first Thor movie.

Final analysis: certainly not the worst superhero movie, but far from the best.

Greatly benefits from its Asian backdrop.
But does this locale work for a Wolverine film? What it gains in exotic appeal it looses in suitability for the character.

Honestly, the mid end credit bonus scene was more intriguing than the entire film.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Sets up well but has a weak ending. A soufflé with a few missing ingredients.

Although this film is unquestionably better than X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), it still doesn’t measure up to the quality of the X-Men films. As a standalone episode, this movie works just fine…“The One Where Wolvie Goes to Asia.” But where does this film land in Wolvie’s chronology? What major character revelations do we learn here? How many more X-Men movies will 20th Century Fox get out of Jackman since he’s not only getting older, but also more accomplished as an A-list leading man? Though a decent entry into the character’s personal back story, it’s equivalent to an average storyline in the comic books. Certainly the writers could’ve culled the comics for a more exciting, more cinematic story than this one.

R.I.P.D. (PG-13)

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Directed by: Robert Schwentke
Starring: Ryan Reynolds
July 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Reynolds is double-crossed by his A-list partner.

Mary Louise Parker as St. Peter? She’s in two new releases this week...impressive.
Parker also appears in Red 2.

Indian food sure does bring out the monster in some people.

Reynolds’ old partner can traverse realities? Color me interested.

Eternal affairs...clever.

A singularity forming over a city...didn’t we see this in last summer’s The Avengers?

“She billygoated me.” Eww!

Final analysis: a unique concept that isn’t exploited to maximum effect.
In fact, the premise is dumbed down for maximum commercial appeal.

Thematically and conceptually similar to the Men in Black films.

Bridges steals the show as the Custer-esque, chaw-mouthed veteran who shows Reynolds the ropes. A truly unique role.
The way he sits sidesaddle in the patrol car is a nice character touch.

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4 stars. A sequel is almost certainly assured.

I remember laughing out loud when seeing the trailer for this film, thinking “now here’s a clever conceit.” The germ of that conceit—the premise—is the only part of the film that works. As with most Hollywood productions today, it’s poor execution and cursory character development that render this movie a pale reflection of what it could’ve been in more skillful and creative hands. And, also like too many Hollywood films today, R.I.P.D. is far too vulgar and vapid for its own good. Though Universal Studios will work hard to find a way to resurrect this sad effort into a sequel, this DOA plot should be left six feet under. RIP R.I.P.D.

Despicable Me 2 (PG)

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Directed by: Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud
Starring: Steve Carell
July 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Horseshoe-shaped super magnet appears in the Arctic. A slick sci-fi teaser.

In a jam, Gru considers a new profession.
But before he can make that decision, he lands in a sticky situation. C’mon, that’s better than half the lines in the movie.

The last thing I wanted to see in this family film was a minion in the buff. Eww.

Bad date leads to a better prospect.

Chip hat...fashionable and delectable.
But how often do you need to purchase a new one?

Shouldn’t the mutant minions be able to chew through the cages?
A bit of a spoiler, but a question that exposes this contrived plot point.

Minion mock music videos are exceedingly silly.
But it made the kids laugh, so mission accomplished I suppose.

Final analysis: too many pratfalls by minions and too shallow a plot to be fully enjoyed.
All of the best scenes were spoiled in the trailer.

Too much time was spent in the mall, which is a hackneyed locus for action.

Rating:
2 out of 4 stars. Unremarkable sequel lacks the heart of the original. A Gru-some experience.

With the runaway success of the first film, it was a foregone conclusion that a Despicable sequel would ensue. That effort ended up being pretty safe by trying to turn former super villain Gru into a nice guy (which is far less compelling), adding a possible love interest for Gru (contrived and mushy for a kiddy pic) and amping up the minion mischief (a gimmick to garner more laughs from the target audience). Those preteen spectators won’t notice the decline in story quality, but everyone else in the audience will chalk this one up as mildly disappointing. And annoying: bee-doh, bee-doh, bee-doh…

This is the End (R)

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Directed by: Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen
Starring: James Franco
June 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Boy was I wrong.

All of the stars as themselves is a curious conceit.
And takes some getting used to…kinda’ odd at first.

A crazy earthquake or a mass beam up?

A passage from Revelation is recited. Apocalypse now?

“Rapey vibe” scene is amusing.

Danny wastes water and is voted off the island.

Jonah’s narcissistic request of God has no prayer of being answered.

Confessions followed by an exorcism.
Two radically different spiritual functions of the Catholic Church.

I thought Gandalf slew the Balrog?

Hollywood’s version of heaven...oh my!
The notion that reprobates who commit one selfless act will be admitted into heaven is absolutely absurd…like most of the movie.

Final analysis: not without moments of humor, but an extremely crass and gross film.
There was a time when jokes about sex organs were considered taboo. And then, at some point, such jokes became acceptable in films. Now we have “humor” based on the fluids that emit from sex organs in comedies like this one. Where will it end? Hopefully this is the end.

Rating: 1 1/2 out of 4 stars for incessant offensiveness and a vapid plot. Expected much more.
Afterthought: despite its transparent “message,” the movie itself has very little that’s redeemable...ironic.

A friend of mine urged me to see this movie because of its heavy dose of the book of Revelation from the Bible. There is indeed a strong eschatological (end times) theme here, but theological accuracy is a whole other matter. Bottom line is that any nods to the Good Book are merely self-serving attempts at providing some semblance of a religious framework to hold together the incessant stream of sewage that pours forth from the characters’ mouths. I repent of my decision to watch this film.

Epic (PG)

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Directed by: Chris Wedge
Starring: Amanda Seyfried
May 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Termites holding hands...funny line.

What happens when a three-legged dog stops to scratch?
Depends on how fast it can scratch I suppose, but gravity can be so unforgiving.

The clash of Leafmen and Boggans is an exciting, creative fracas.

“Many leaves, one tree.”
Kinda’ New Agey. Have we slipped back into FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992)?

Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Seems to be the movie’s mantra.

Fruit fly bit is hilarious!
The funniest gag in the movie.

Jedi-like jumping ability would come in handy.

Boggan fortress has a decided
LOTR look to it.

Moon bloom forestalled.

Final analysis: An imaginative animated fantasy that succeeds despite heavily borrowing from
Arrietty, LOTR & Avatar.
The scene where the scientist finally sees the little people is also reminiscent of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989).

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Despite not living up to its name, Epic is a fun-filled family film.

The movie has some decent moments, but the pastiche plot elements really detract from its potential. The animation is solid, but the story is sub-Pixar, which means it will appeal to its target audience but may be found wanting by adult audience members.

Monsters University (G)

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Directed by: Dan Scanlon
Starring: Billy Crystal
June 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Starry-eyed Mike on a field trip. A monster is created.

I sense trouble with Mile’s roommate.
Correction: Mike’s roommate…who seems a bit shifty.

Mike and Sulley meet.
A meet-cute of monstrous proportions. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

The dean is fittingly frightening.

What to do when dreams are dashed? Join OK.

Winners of the Scare Games get a Piston Cup?
The Games are the coolest part of the movie. The scene in the library is an instant classic.

Another field trip to the Big Leagues.

Don’s mustache is the Batman symbol.
A tip of the hat to the Caped Crusader by the Pixar artists?

Final analysis: doesn’t posses the unbridled creativity or emotional resonance of the original.
Nor the topical relevance of the original—the power shortages of the early 2000s.

First half is extremely gimmicky, but the plot settles in once the Games begin.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4 stars.

Disney’s sequelitis is beginning to infect Pixar, which is a profound tragedy.

Still, when rival DreamWorks can only muster up
Turbo, Pixar is in no danger of being dethroned.

This prequel idea seemed better suited for a straight-to-DVD release rather than a theatrical one. Remember the frenetic sequence inside the factory in the first film, where rows of doors on an assembly line sail by with characters jumping on and through them? Nothing in the sequel even comes close to that level of sheer exhilaration. True, there are a few memorable and heartwarming scenes and it’s mildly entertaining seeing younger versions of Mike and Sulley, but this is a mostly mediocre movie. With Cars 2 and now Monster’s University, Pixar’s quality has clearly suffered at the hands of it’s Disney benefactors who will milk a property until the cows come home rather than producing riskier, original material…you know, the kind of stories that made Pixar great in the first place. It was bound to happen, I suppose, but it’s still sad to see.

Man of Steel (PG-13)

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Directed by: Zack Snyder
Starring: Henry Cavill
June 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Correction: Zack Snyder.

Far more epic opening than the original.
However, the prolog is far too protracted and showy for what it needed to be. Snyder tries too hard to dazzle here and during the climactic melee.

“I will find him!” And I thought Michael Shannon was frightening on Boardwalk Empire.

Really interesting way of conveying Clark’s heightened senses in school.
One of the best character moments in the film.

New Fortress of Solitude looks like it was designed by H. R. Geiger.
Correction: H.R. Giger.

The first flight sequences are breathtaking. Love the sonic boom sound.

Origin story is parsed out judiciously.

Notice the symbolism in the stain glass window.
Superman’s messianic attributes have been well documented in film studies. Also, in the moment, I couldn't remember if it’s stain or stained glass. I chose poorly. Past tense is correct.

Don’t tug on Superman’s cape and don’t mess with his mother.
With much gratitude to the late Jim Croce.

Small town skirmish similar to the one in Superman II...but on speed.

Woah...didn’t see that resolution to the final showdown coming.

Welcome to the planet. Clever turn of phrase.

Final analysis: Starts off strong but gets hokey by the end. Borrows too heavily from first two films.
Superman (1978) and Superman II (1980).

Costner and Crowe are superb, both lend the film a great deal of dignity and humanity.

Hans Zimmer’s score is excellent.

In the end, better than the last film, but not as enjoyable as Reeves’ early movies.

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4. Will MOS soar or end up as box office Kryptonite?

Writers Goyer and Nolan have attempted to update Superman in a similar manner to what they accomplished in the Batman trilogy. Although the more realistic/less cartoony approach to the material seems to have worked well for the origin story and character development phases of the story, the decision to make the story darker and edgier has squelched the optimism and patriotism that were emblematic of the superhero and his quest from his inception in comic books. It sounds so obvious when stated, but Superman is a different type of hero than Batman and the re-envisioning of the man in tights here is a mostly mediocre affair. As for the movie’s star, Cavill is too earnest and emotionless to play Clark Kent…he’s even more introspective and dour than Bruce Wayne/Batman and brings nothing special to the roll. He certainly doesn’t possess the charm Christopher Reeve endued his Kent/Superman with. The climactic showdown, as shot by Snyder and his cameraman, is nauseating. The handheld camera is jerking back/forth, up/down so much that everything is one gigantic blur…and this is supposed to be thrilling? I had no idea when Superman was hitting or being hit. I’m sure the video game set can keep up with the action just fine, but I dare say a large segment of the audience needed a Dramamine when all was said and done. All told, Snyder’s Superman film is a valiant effort that just doesn’t have the same appeal that Reeve’s films, however cheesy they were at times, had in spades.

The Amazing Spider-Man (PG-13)

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Directed by: Marc Webb
Starring: Andrew Garfield
July 2012

Both films in Marvel’s
Fantastic Four franchise were mediocre affairs that failed to live up to their exceptional title. Here we have a movie with the word amazing in its title. The danger with using a superlative in a title is that if the project fails to live up to such boasting, the drubbing received from critics, audiences and the media could be unbearable. So then, does the new Spider-Man film live up to its lofty name?

Before addressing that inquiry, it’s important to answer the even bigger question looming over this film—why reboot the franchise since the last
Spider-Man movie was released in 2007? Isn’t it too soon for a new Spidey flick? With Sam Raimi’s trilogy fresh in our minds, it’s impossible to avoid a compare/contrast evaluation of the former Spider-Man (played by Tobey Maguire) and the new one (played by Andrew Garfield). While both casts, from top to bottom, are equally impressive, the edge in the director category clearly goes to Raimi, who beats Marc Webb (surely a cosmic practical joke linked director and project) handily. Raimi’s Spidey films are much more cinematic than Webb’s effort, which, save for the three or four action scenes, plays like a well-acted drama on Lifetime rather than a high-octane summer blockbuster. The action scene settings themselves are vastly different—Raimi’s take place on skyscrapers or on a high-speed train, while Webb’s take place on top of a corporate building, in a high school science lab or in the city sewer (though still contrived and predictable, this was an exciting setting for a melee).

As for the men inside the Spidey suit, Maguire infused his Peter Parker with a nerdy, angsty vibe, while Garfield is a bit more subdued and contemplative. Where Maguire’s Parker is giddy upon discovering that he has superpowers, Garfield’s Parker seems to take it all in stride, as if the enduing of superpowers was an everyday occurrence. To be fair, Garfield does show some emotion and excitement during the skateboard scene, but his response is noticeably more reserved than Maguire’s when he first learns how to climb walls and shoot webs.

In the original trilogy, Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) was written as a kind of floozy tasked with driving a wedge between Parker and his heartthrob, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). Here, Gwen (Emma Stone) is the whip smart intern for Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) a.k.a. The Lizard. Stone is absolutely delightful in the film and brings an effective mixture of intelligence and compassion to the role. The one nitpick here is that she seems a bit too experienced and knowledgeable to still be in high school—the Juno Syndrome.

As for Ifans (
Pirate Radio), his character is neither as psychotic as Willem DaFoe’s Goblin nor as maniacal as Alfred Molina’s Dr. Octopus (we’ll leave the pathetic villains in Raimi’s third film out of it). Like Doc Ock, Connors has a redemptive act near the film’s conclusion, but his effectiveness as a villain is diminished by minimal screen time and shallow character development.

Where Peter’s aunt and uncle are concerned, you can toss a coin as to whether the original Cliff Robertson/Rosemary Harris pairing is better than the new Martin Sheen/Sally Field duo. One of the most interesting new characters is Denis Leary’s Captain Stacy. The “meet the parents” dinner where Peter insults the police force, and Stacy by extension, is quite amusing.

As for the movie’s visual effects, they’re serviceable if not remarkable—surely special effects were one of the main considerations in updating the franchise. Are these FX that much better than those employed in Raimi’s trilogy? I would argue that the cinematography, and perhaps the visual effects themselves, are more inventive and cinematic in the trilogy than in this film. Not quite the bold leap forward I was expecting.

The first
Spider-Man film was released on the heels of 9-11 and gave us a champion to cheer for—timing is everything and Spidey was the hero of the hour, the symbol of freedom we desperately needed to allay our fears and galvanize our resolve against the evil that exists, and frequently manifests itself, in our modern world. Spider-Man captured the zeitgeist like few films before or since. So then, what societal issues or ripped-from-the-headlines events does this new Spidey film broach? Well, other than ethics in genetics and the inability of law enforcers to keep us safe…nothing. This take on the wall crawler, like its predecessor, features teen angst aplenty, but we’ve seen it all before.

In the end,
The Amazing Spider-Man is an earnest film, but not necessarily an exciting film…one might even say it’s borderline boring at times. This is somewhat ironic when considering that Webb’s previous effort, (500) Days of Summer, was an indie sensation featuring fine performances, innovative direction and a narrative change-up to the typical dating movie formula.

Too soon to reboot? Time will tell, but if I’m honest with myself, I probably would’ve thought this film was pretty good if I’d never seen Raimi’s trilogy. That might not be fair to this effort, but you know what they say about life.

Rating: 2 1/2

Brave (PG)

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Directed by: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, Steve Purcell
Starring: Kelly Macdonald
June 2012

Pixar’s thirteenth film,
Brave, is a bold departure from the studio’s last couple of releases, both of which were sequels and featured the exploits of toys and cars, respectively. Brave has pioneered a few firsts for the stalwart studio: somewhat surprisingly, this is the first period piece produced by the studio. The movie is set several centuries ago in the Scottish Highlands. Brave is also Pixar’s first fairy tale, told in a conspicuously classic Disney manner. Brenda Chapman is the first female director of a Pixar film. Most importantly for those who’ve been critical of the studio’s purportedly misogynistic or chauvinistic tendencies, the film features the first female title character in any Pixar film.

Some will argue that
Brave is Pixar’s answer to DreamWorks’ How To Train Your Dragon (2010), but the two animated films are vastly different. For starters, there aren’t any colossal, reptilian fire-breathers in Brave. Secondly, in Dragon young lad Berk seeks approval from his father while Brave’s Merida pulls out her long, thick, red hair in defiance of her overbearing mother’s insistence on her adherence to decorum and tradition. Ultimately, Brave has more in common with early Disney animated movies than it does with DreamWorks’ foray into Medieval times, particularly any Disney classic that features an old, wart-nosed, spell-casting witch.

Less obvious is
Brave’s commonality with Disney’s Brother Bear (2003), specifically in the way the spell transforms effected characters. Another element borrowed from the Disney back catalog is the archery contest first seen in Robin Hood (1973). In that movie, archers competed for a kiss from the fair Maid Marian, but in Brave, contestants are vying for Merida’s hand in marriage (until Merida pulls out her bow and shows them all how it’s done). Of course, a young lass with a bow and arrow isn’t exactly original either…Susan was a fair shot in the Narnia films and, more recently, Katniss was deadly accurate in The Hunger Games (2012). Although Merida and her mother don’t switch bodies, the way the women eventually come around to the other’s point of view definitely has shades of Freaky Friday (1976, 2003). You could also say that firelocks and the three little bears steal the show at the end, yet another allusion to a literary antecedent.

All of this to say that
Brave certainly isn’t the most original of the Pixar films. However, the studio’s ability to weave these familiar story threads into an intricate tapestry of high-spirited, hilarious and heartfelt moments is really quite astounding…you might even say uncanny. And there can be no doubt that like the many early Disney animated features it emulates, Brave is brimming with that elusive quotient called movie magic.

Other than the witch’s spell, the most magical element in the movie is the tiny blue sprites called
wisps. Besides looking and sounding cool, wisps are like mini spirit guides that lay out a course for the characters to follow, much like breadcrumbs in the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale. The tribute to Steve Jobs, as his wisp ascends heavenward, during the end credits is a class move by the studio who owes the departed visionary a huge debt, both creatively and financially.

Though
Brave probably won’t go down as essential Pixar viewing, it succeeds on its own right and has blazed new trails for the studio. Whether or not Brave is your cauldron of brew, you’re sure to find it a significant improvement over last year’s stuck-in-neutral Cars 2. The studio is back on track.

Rating: 3

The Avengers (PG-13)

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Directed by: Joss Whedon
Starring: Robert Downey Jr.
May 2012

One of the most highly anticipated superhero movies to come along in quite some time,
The Avengers is the culmination of years of setup: Marvel executives felt that the best way to ensure the success of an Avengers film was to produce individual movies for all of the main characters so that the audience would be familiar with their origin stories and wouldn’t be jumping into this new adventure cold...an enormous financial gamble with tremendous earning potential if the gamble paid off. Although timing was a major consideration for this film, the main concern was that of plotting—would an Avengers movie collapse under the weight (considerable in the Hulk’s case) of so many superheroes and their corresponding A-list stars? Most will applaud fan favorite writer/director Joss Whedon for pulling off the balancing act of the decade, and on the face of it they’d be right for feeling that kind of fierce pride over his achievement here. However, I feel Whedon’s juggling act works on one level while failing decisively on another…and it’s a big one. To use an analogy, however skillful the actual juggling is, using flaming torches is much more impressive than using, say, tissues. Although appearances would suggest that Whedon has given us the former, he’s actually cleverly foisted the latter upon his audience. Let me explain…

The “character moments” that serve as the
ad hoc glue to hold all of the action sequences together (and from becoming one run-on melee) are extremely flimsy and don’t really tell us anything new about the characters: Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) is angry all the time (not exactly a news flash), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is still having troubles with his nefarious brother, Loki (old hat) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) can shoot arrows with a degree of precision that would make LOTR’s Legolas jealous, but even after watching the film I have no idea what his character’s real name is. Captain America (Chris Evans) is adjusting to life in the 21st century, which is good for a few chortles, but his major character revelation is that back in the 40s his persona inspired a line of trading cards. A line early in the film suggests that Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) isn’t just another pretty face, but that notion is belied by her lack of involvement in the plot, scant dialog and only her Sydney Bristow kickboxing skills to recommend her.

As for Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), he verbally spars with Captain America, slugs it out with Thor, tries to rile Dr. Banner (without his suit on, which doesn’t seem very prudent) and schmoozes with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Tony and Pepper officially got together at the end of
Iron Man II (2010), but in this film, there’s the feeling that they’ve been dating for some time. In a film overstuffed with so many story lines, wouldn’t this subplot work better in the next Iron Man film, where it could be fleshed out in more detail? It’s ironic that some of the best “character” scenes in the movie are ones I feel would’ve had more impact elsewhere.

Stellan Skarsgard’s Prof. Selvig is relegated to a few lines of dialog, which is a big disappointment since a lot more could’ve been pulled out of the sensational actor. Even Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury is sidelined during most of the movie’s action—it seems as if his function is to fret over the Earth’s plight while gently goading the hodgepodge of superheroes into forming a team that’s implied in the title and that the audience knows will coalesce at some point during the movie. In fact, this plot point exposes another narrative misfire: the group isn’t “officially” in place until nearly three quarters of the way through the film, which is a bit exhausting and belaboring for a story element that’s such a foregone conclusion.

One plot thread that does have some real-world relevance is Banner’s struggle to keep “the other guy” from emerging and making a mess of things. Banner’s admission that he’s angry all the time is tantamount to an individual in a recovery group admitting to being powerless over the compulsion to do the wrong thing. Instead of actively resisting his rage-a-holic tendencies, as Edward Norton’s Banner does at the end of
The Incredible Hulk (2008), Ruffalo’s Banner fully embraces the reality of his weakness…and gains strength from such knowledge. There’s a powerful irony here. Even though these moments are fleeting (and constantly upstaged by the next wham bang action scene) there is some complexity here, which probably stands out as the zenith of character development in the film.

While on the subject of Banner/Hulk, some of the best scenes in the film come from the not-so-jolly green giant, like when he smashes skyscrapers or pounds Loki into the floor. It seems like Whedon has discovered the right look, tone and temperament for the character and it well may be that the Hulk is a situational hero rather than one that can headline an entire movie (judging from Hulk’s forgettable films released during the previous decade). But for all of the memorable moments provided by the character, some of the film’s most glaring plot holes center on the Hulk’s destructive tendencies. When Banner finally transforms into the Hulk—disappointingly halfway through the film—he recklessly chases Black Widow through the cramped corridors on the hover carrier. The Hulk indiscriminately busts everything in his path and most of it (pipes, cables, etc) looks vital to the smooth operations of the vessel.

The Hulk’s rampage through the ship would seem to undermine Iron Man’s efforts to repair the plummeting craft. Miraculously, as soon as the team has been “officially” christened, the Hulk gets along with Widow and everyone else on the team, as observed in the
faux photo op of the group standing defiantly and triumphantly over vanquished Loki. Perhaps these inconsistencies explain why none of the recent Hulk solo movies have been smash hits (sorry, couldn’t resist).

Although the sheer number of action sequences (there’s enough for three movies) undermine whatever plot can be deciphered here, the match-ups themselves are a bit obvious and formulaic. This crowded bought schedule results in too many showcase fights, i.e.: Thor fights Iron Man, Thor fights Loki, Hulk fights everyone, etc. Some of these confrontations feel terribly contrived. It’s as if Whedon and company said “let’s throw Thor against Iron Man and see what happens.” Granted, these episodic brawls are endemic to comic books, but they don’t seem to have translated too well to the big screen where the action scenes seem bloated, overstuffed and unnecessary in many instances.

Again, should some of these conflicts have been saved for the next film (and is there any doubt that there will be a sequel?). The climactic conflagration in downtown NYC is immaculately storyboarded and features some mind-blowing showdowns, many of them decentralized, which sets up some wonderfully rhythmic crosscutting. If there’s a downside here, the setting seems a bit passé for a final conflict (the location looks like it was borrowed from the old Avengers arcade game). Why not pick a less hackneyed setting for the movie’s battle royal? And in deference to 9-11, why not pick on a different city for a change?

Much of the excitement (hype) over the film is tied up in the luminous stars that populate the film, but an even bigger draw, it can be argued, is the assemblage of this super group. However, we’ve seen the team approach to “comic book” films before in the
X-Men and Fantastic Four franchises. This begs the question of why this film has generated such enthusiasm from fans when the whole team thing has been done, with varying degrees of success, fairly recently? Are the characters here more powerful and more interesting than those in the other movie series’? Are the actors here better or more popular than those in the other films (well, maybe this film has an edge over the Fantastic Four films). The novelty of the team approach to superhero films has worn out by now, so the anticipation over this film must be linked to some other ineffable quotient of movie magic.

In the end,
The Avengers is a surfeit of FX and a dearth of actual story. Whedon’s “kitchen sink” approach to this movie means that the inevitable sequel will have even more action sequences and less plot which will put it right on par with Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011). The Avengers leaves its audience feeling full as they exit the theater but it’s all been eye candy, which is nothing more than empty calories for the mind. Which means most people will love it…at least until the hype wears off.

Like the movie itself, this review has become overstuffed and overlong. We’ll there’s my Hulk-like demolition of the movie. And like the Hulk admiring his handiwork at the end of a battle, I’ve done all the damage I can do.

Rating: 2 1/2

The Secret World of Arrietty (G)

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Directed by: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Starring: Bridgit Mendler
February 2012

The latest animated delight from Studio Ghibli is based on
The Borrowers, the children’s book series written by English author Mary Norton. While long-standing fans of visionary director Hayao Miyazaki may experience initial dismay over the fact that the director didn’t…well, direct this film, they’ll be relieved to know that he serves as a co-screenwriter and one of the executive producers of the film. In his stead, director Hiromasa Yonebayashi does an admirable job of filling in for the master with a film that’s nearly as technically and artistically proficient as any of Miyazaki’s earlier films. However, Arrietty doesn’t possess the unfettered creativity of Spirited Away (2001) nor the wonder and whimsy of Ponyo (2008).

Although it would be tempting to blame
Arrietty’s noticeable decline in storytelling magic on Miyazaki’s absence from the director’s chair, such an argument just wouldn’t be fair. So what prevents Arrietty from being a great Ghibli film? It certainly isn’t the Ghibli artists because the movie’s lushly mounted animation stands up to any other outing by the studio. It isn’t the stellar voice cast, headlined by Will Arnett, Amy Poehler and the timeless Carol Burnett. One could make an argument that the movie’s biggest debit is the adapted screenplay, that creativity is constrained by the pre-existing characters and narrative, even though slavish adherence to the source material doesn’t seem to be a problem here.

Although a story preoccupied with terminal illness and familial dislocation isn’t standard animated film fare, can we really blame the film’s creative letdown on these downer story elements? In the end, it may be impossible to determine why
Arrietty isn’t an instant classic like the other Ghibli films. But who knows, as time passes, this film might go down as the greatest Ghibili film ever, making my argument here as moot as dial-up internet or pocket pagers.

Rating: 3

Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (PG)

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Directed by: Brad Peyton
Starring: Josh Hutcherson
February 2012

The follow-up to Brendan Fraser’s
Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008), Journey 2: The Mysterious Island extends the franchise which delves into the mythology, creatures and worlds of wonder created by early sci-fi writer Jules Verne. This time around, however, Fraser is out and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is in. Josh Hutcherson returns as young adventurer Sean Anderson. Sean’s friction with step-dad Johnson comprises most of the film’s character moments along with the handful of scenes Sean shares with his long-lost grandfather (Michael Caine), his new crush (Vanessa Hudgens) and her father, the skittish pilot (Luis Guzman). Rounding out the cast is Kristin Davis in an itty-bitty bit part as Sean’s mother.

From the title you would assume that the film would be based on Verne’s book of the same name, but you would only be 1/3 accurate. The movie’s narrative is ostensibly based on three literary classics: Verne’s
Mysterious Island, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. The common denominator of each tale (besides rip-roaring, old-tyme adventure) is the prominent showcasing of an island as the central locale. Averring that the island in each of these classics is one and the same is a clever and bold conceit, one that keeps the plot wheels steadily churning along through muddy musings and soft-core familial strife in the movie’s early goings.

However, the mash-up premise is quickly jettisoned just about the time Guzman steers his wing-and-a-prayer chopper into, not away from, a violently swirling waterspout. In all fairness, we do get to see a miniature pachyderm
a la the Lilliputians as well as Captain Nemo’s Nautilus, but where does the movie borrow from Treasure Island…a gold-spewing volcano? More to the point, what if screenwriters Brian and Mark Gunn (no relation to Ben I’m sure) had capitalized on the original premise by weaving a tapestry rife with allusions and events from the three books instead of merely teasing the concept?

As a quote unquote family film, the movie tries to make object lessons out of wrong choices made by the characters, particularly Guzman’s greedy, gold-luster—he’s drawn to the mountain of gold like a giant bird to a giant bee (oops, one paragraph too early to use that analogy). The story also makes occasional, most often feeble, attempts at foregrounding modern parenting. Guzman wants to send his daughter to college so he goes in search of a bolder-sized gold nugget…with the way inflation is escalating, he might need two. Johnson desperately tires to connect with Hutcherson, but the best advice he can offer the teen is to woo young hotties with Johnson’s patented “pec pop.” Consider this scene the film’s nadir.

The zenith of the film, despite its utter absurdity, is the rapturous flight of the bumblebee’s sequence. The story really takes flight when the adventurers ride giant bees like airborne steeds, and the action kicks into high gear when the bees are stalked by even bigger birds of prey. Honorable mention goes to the sequences involving the sleek (but too small?)
Nautilus, although restarting the engines with the charge from an electric eel is a bit farfetched even by this movie’s whimsical standards.

Where the acting is concerned, a more eclectic cast you’re not likely to find and they all turn in serviceable, if not award-winning, performances. Even though all of Johnson’s roles aren’t exactly the same he plays them all as such. On some future film the director will figure out that it’s more cost effective to replace Johnson with a cardboard standup of the actor with looped lines…the result would be no different than his performance here or in any of his other films.

Although the inestimable Caine never misfires, his character, as written, isn’t as enjoyable as would be expected. In fact, it’s hard to remember a Caine character that’s this unlikeable…he needlessly bickers with Johnson’s character and the constant cavalcade of condescension is off-putting. I certainly don’t fault the actor; I fault the Gunn’s for failing to give his character any redeeming characteristics.

In the end, though no better or worse than its predecessor,
Journey 2 squandered a golden opportunity to creatively integrate exciting elements from the three literary classics it references into its yarn. Instead, the story defaults to simply serving up a reheated version of last summer’s action flick. Maybe for the next film, the writers can emphasize a solid plot with fleshed-out characters over SFX and action sequences…in other words, the polar opposite of this Journey.

Rating: 2 1/2

Captain America: The First Avenger (PG-13)

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Directed by: Joe Johnston
Starring: Chris Evans
July 2011

TAKING AIM:
The nationalistic hero receives big budget, big screen treatment, starring Chris Evans of the
Fantastic Four franchise. But will the red, white and blue superdude fare better than that Marvel-ous quartet?

TARGET PRACTICE:
A Matter of Identification: Traditionally, the stereotypical comic book geek has been characterized as a scrawny, pimple-faced, anti-social teenage boy. The reason why many of those male teens read comic books (beyond the scantily clad superheroines) is the matter of identification—they yearn to possess super-strength, speed, intelligence, etc. In this sense, comic books become a visual panacea for angst-ridden teens (or older men attempting to recapture some semblance of their youth). The form of identification found in comic books, then, is a potent catharsis, especially when the audience is given a front row seat to the hero’s transformation—the pivotal moment of any origin story.

Transformation Comparison: The transformation story structure worked like a charm in Spider-Man (2002) and, for the most part, it works well here too. Peter Parker (Spider-Man) and Steve Rogers (Captain America) both experience a dramatic uptick in strength, speed and agility after the transformational event in their origin tales: Parker is bitten by a mutant spider while Rogers undergoes a government experiment. However, while Parker merely sees an increase in bicep size, Rogers emerges from the mechanical cocoon, which is part of a top-secret military initiative to create super soldiers, as a fully fledged beefcake (with his shirt off, of course). Whereas most of the aforementioned teenage males would gladly accept Spidey’s superpowers, I’m confident that all of them would want Rogers’ physique, which makes his transformation all the more resonant for the comic book set.

Oh, What Webs We Weave: Surprise, this section isn’t about Spider-Man! It’s actually a play on words regarding the movie’s villain… Hugo Weaving, he of the Matrix and The Lord of the Rings trilogies, is a fine actor and actually doesn’t go too far over the top here as Nazi henchman Johann Schmidt. However, one of the goofier elements of the movie is the Red Skull prosthetic/make-up, which in no way resembles Weaving’s facial structure. I understand that Red Skull had to be in the movie, to appease comic purists, but this is one of those instances where strict adherence to the comic undermines the writers’/producers’ efforts to have us buy into the “reality” of their story. Weaving is a much more convincing villain without the hokey vermillion mask.

The Other Guys: Tommy Lee Jones was the perfect choice to play crusty Col. Chester Phillips, but he brings nothing to his role beyond what you’d expect. Stanley Tucci is memorable as Dr. Abraham Erskine and Hayley Atwell is Rogers’ cute-as-a-button love interest, Peggy Carter. There are plenty of secondary characters in the movie and one of the standout parts is handlebar mustached mercenary, Timothy “Dum Dum” Dugan (Neal McDonough). Something about Dugan’s gung-ho demeanor makes for amusing and captivating viewing, much like David Graf’s Sgt. Tackleberry in the Police Academy films. You’ve gotta’ love characters whose sole function in a film is to be a blunt force weapon.

Imitating Art: Before becoming famous as Cdr. Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Jonathan Frakes impersonated Captain America at a mall for meager pay. Here, Rogers tries rallying the troops on a European tour as Captain America—the mascot, not the superhero. Rogers wants to be on the battlefield, but despite his incredible speed and strength, the military feels he can do more to advance the war effort on stage instead of on the front lines. What’s that old oxymoron…military intelligence? These scenes humanize Rogers to the degree that we almost want to stand up and cheer when Captain America finally takes the European theater by storm, singlehandedly turning the tide of the war. What better way to insure that an audience is sympathetic toward a character than to inject a healthy dose of pathos concerning the hero’s plight?

PARTING SHOTS:
All in all,
Captain America is a middling comic-to-cinema effort, but you could do far worse…like Evans’ earlier superhero films. Now that the table has been set by Marvel mainstays Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor and now Captain America…bring on The Avengers!

Rating: 2 1/2

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (PG)

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Directed by: Michael Apted
Starring: Ben Barnes
December 2010

“Third Journey to Narnia Fails to Showcase the Book’s Unbridled Creativity”

I know I’m not alone in my conviction that the third book in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, is the finest in the seven book fantasy cycle. I temper my less than flattering comments about the movie adaptation of Lewis’ novel, directed by Michael Apted (Amazing Grace), with the knowledge that my expectations of the film were, admittedly, far too lofty. That said, Dawn Treader is a remarkably, inexplicably un-magical journey into Lewis’ enchanted realm. Although each book bursts with charm and imagination, it can be argued that Dawn Treader represents a high watermark for Lewis, who had clearly hit his creative stride at this point in the Narnia series.

Opinions may vary as to what went wrong with the movie, but for my money the film suffers from a tension between narrative polarities; the story hews too closely to the original source material in some instances and takes too many liberties with original story details and structure in others. Most noticeable to viewers who’ve read the book is the movie’s juggling act with major events in the story—the encounter with the Dufflepuds comes much earlier and Eustace’s (the perfectly cast Will Poulter) transformation into a dragon comes much later in the film version. The natural byproduct of this scrambled structure, besides overriding the author’s original intentions for the story, is an uneven narrative that feels more like choppy waters than smooth sailing.

While the Dufflepuds, disappointingly, only appear for about two minutes in the film (the single element I most wanted to see in the movie), Eustace, who remains a dragon much longer in the film version, factors more significantly into the story’s climax. Although some story alterations work better than others (Good: collecting the seven swords from the seven lords, Bad: a thought-generated sea serpent that looks like it was borrowed from the
Pirates of the Caribbean franchise), such embellishments, like the extraneous It’s a Wonderful Life styled scene with Edmund (Skandar Keynes), Peter (William Moseley) and Susan (Anna Popplewell), weren’t the movie’s biggest creative liability. Ultimately, what draws the Dawn Treader off course, as ironic as it sounds, is pacing. Apted and company bring so much admiration and zeal to the project that their enthusiasm creates the narrative equivalent of a runaway train. And we all know the demise of runaway trains.

So, now that the
Narnia books featuring the Pevensie children have found their way to the big screen, will we see the final four books in Lewis’ series (which largely exclude the Pevensie’s) adapted for the big screen? I supposed the better question is whether or not this effort has warranted the production of future films in the series. Unlike the hugely successful Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings fantasy franchises, the quality of the Narnia film series has decreased with each new release.

As such, it now seems doubtful that
The Silver Chair, The Horse and His Boy, The Magician’s Nephew or The Last Battle will ever be translated into motion pictures. As for The Horse and His Boy, whether or not we ever get to see it realized as a feature film, at least we have Albert Lamorisse’s brilliant White Mane (1953) to fill that cinematic niche. Though only forty minutes in length, Lamorisse’s touching tale of a special and sacrificial friendship between a boy and his horse has more magic than Dawn Treader has in its entirety. Worth a watch!

Rating: 2 1/2

Alice in Wonderland (PG-13)

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Directed by: Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp
March 2010

“Burton’s Timing and Creative Vision are Off in Wonderland

Alice is in the most unenviable position imaginable…she’s at her own engagement party and has a revulsion to her husband-to-be. A crowd has assembled to witness the momentous occasion and, much to Alice’s horror, her homely suitor drops to one knee and pops the question. Feeling the radiant heat of a hundred expectant gazes burning holes into her face, Alice does what any sane person would do—she flees the vicinity; leaving her would-be fiancé and accompanying crowd in a stupefied trance.

While pouting near a hollowed out tree, Alice hears noises from inside the tree and bends over to take a look. The ground gives way and Alice falls, falls, falls down a surreal tunnel filled with obstacles like chairs, pictures and a grand piano. Once through a magical door, Alice finds herself in Wonderland, but after taking one look at the dismal and drab alternate realm, I’m sure the blonde debutante is prepared to accept her fate and take her chances topside with rodent boy.

And so begins Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010), based on Lewis Carroll’s children’s masterpieces Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, which is utterly uninteresting, as incredulous as that sounds. Despite its surfeit of vision, Wonderland is disappointingly bereft of heart. Johnny Depp’s performance as the walleyed Mad Hatter is unsettlingly askew, though not nearly as creepy as his portrayal of Willy Wonka in Burton’s other film about the chocolate factory. Helena Bonham Carter’s turn as the Red Queen is serviceable though not nearly as blood-chilling as it could or should have been. Newcomer Mia Wasikowska is acceptable as Alice, but Ann Hathaway is horrendous as the White Queen: Hathaway tries too hard to appear regal and glides along with her hands in the air as if in a perpetual waltz.

However, what debilitates this iteration of Wonderland isn’t the acting or directing or even the sometimes bearable other times insufferable special effects, but that most capricious of commodities…timing. If Wonderland had been released six months ago it would’ve blended in seamlessly with the concurrent sci-fi/fantasy films and Burton would’ve received well-deserved kudos for yet another frenetic and fantastical fiat of fractured-reality filmmaking. As things stand, Wonderland is the first in what is certain to be a long succession of CGI films that will fail to measure up to James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) and will be harshly, perhaps unfairly in some instances, judged for their technological shortcomings. When compared to Avatar’s special effects, Wonderland’s CGI is like a secondhand account of a rumor based on yesterday’s news. That is to say, due to the painfully obvious disparity in CGI quality between both films, Wonderland looks like it predates Avatar by at least a year even though it’s the newer film.

In reality, it might be a while, perhaps a year or more, before the average effects picture reaches the technological proficiency achieved by
Avatar. Armed with that knowledge, why did Burton opt for a mixture of live action and CG characters instead of an all-out F/X film? Burton’s choice, in twenty-twenty retrospect, would appear to be ill-advised since the resultant mixture of live-action and CGI is strangely uneven and ineffably odd, but not the kind of odd you’d normally associate with Carroll’s classic or Burton’s oft-deranged sensibilities.

The full-on CGI rendering of The Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry) works quite nicely in the film, especially when the teleporting feline de- and re-materializes with enough frequency to give spectators a mild whiplash. In contrast, the bulbous heads of the Red Queen, Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas), which look like they were achieved by shooting into one of those silly carnival mirrors, are bizarre even by Burton’s standards. One wonders if Cameron’s mocap wouldn’t have been a better option for the queen and her two tweedles.

Borrowing from Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” poem in
Through the Looking-Glass, Alice, in order to fulfill a prophecy, must slay the dreaded Jabberwocky…which turns out to be your standard-issue dragon. The Jabberwocky (voiced with the appropriate degree of malevolence by Christopher Lee) appears to be a repainted and rescaled version of the barely adequate fire-breather at the end of Enchanted, another fantasy-themed Disney film released in 2007. Instead of looking to Enchanted for inspiration, Burton’s F/X team should’ve used the impressively rendered dragon in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) as their touchstone. Believe me, when I say the Jabberwocky is a sorry excuse for a dragon I’m not just blowing smoke.

The climactic battle between the Red Queen’s life-size metallic playing card soldiers and the White Queen’s chess piece army is conspicuously brief for a presumably epic confrontation and is frequently upstaged by Alice’s crenellation-hopping duel with the Jabberwocky. The battle, which is visually interesting only because it takes place on a gigantic chessboard, tries to recreate the feverish, pulse-pounding, armor-clanging melees which were executed with preponderant verve, artistry and lyricism in
The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but ends up looking like a cheap knockoff of a Chronicles of Narnia film. Ultimately, the final confrontation’s brevity is a blessing in disguise…the CG veneer is stripped bare long before the Hatter launches into his inane victory jig.

The three fantasy franchises referenced above (
Rings, Potter and Narnia) clearly illustrate another instance of Wonderland’s poor timing. Though fantasy films have managed to retain their commercial viability over the past decade, genre conventions and iconography have been so well-established by now that all but the most superlative examples of the form are exposed as reheated epics or, worse still, derivative remakes. Having borrowed so liberally from other fantasy series’, Wonderland comes off as routine and safe…like most adapted screenplays in Hollywood these days.

So where’s the wonder in this
Wonderland? The curiosity? The levity? Burton’s conception of the titular destination, perhaps not surprisingly, is a dystopian wasteland—a post-apocalyptic acid trip that stands in stark opposition to Carroll’s whimsical, joyful fantasy land. In light of the current global recession, Burton’s timing would seem to be off yet again: right now we need ennobling, encouraging, reassuring fare not yet another bleak and vapid depiction of fractured identities in the postmodern era. It’s too bad Burton didn’t listen to his White Rabbit: the frenzied, furry fellow was trying to tell him all along that he was too late.

Rating: 2 1/2

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (PG)

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Directed by: David Yates
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe
July 2009

“New Potion Discovered: Potter Six Found to Cure Insomnia”


Only sparks emanate from the spell casting sticks at the Hogwarts School of Magic these days. Perhaps Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and his chums, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermoine (Emma Watson), need to replace the batteries in their wands. I hear Energizer batteries keep going and going…

Unfortunately, so does the successful movie series based on the wildly successful series of novels penned by J.K. Rowling. What’s unfortunate is that the wide-eyed wonder and boundless creativity that were hallmarks of the first few films has all but vanished in the more recent entries in the series. I guess it’s natural that as the plots have become increasingly darker and grimmer, the enjoyment factor has exponentially diminished to follow suit. To make matters worse, the latter plots have become increasingly formulaic and just aren’t as fanciful or fun as earlier efforts.

The penultimate tale,
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, though shrouded with spells of concealment, is ultimately ineffective in hiding its aging formula, brought on by series fatigue. Harry, as well as the story itself, is chiefly concerned with revelations pertaining to Tom Riddle and a mysterious textbook that use to belong to someone who signed the book Half-blood Prince, hence the title. While Harry is consumed with such weighty and worrisome issues, Ron is preoccupied with being a Quidditch champion and agonizing over which of two female companions he should commit to, one of which is Hermoine…awkward!

At this point in the series, the plots are predetermined to the point of being perfunctory: in each movie there has to be a Quidditch match, various classes at Hogwarts where revelations are made, a central mystery, friction between the triad of main characters, etc. Such cookie cutter plots might be exciting for those diehard fans who are delirious with excitement each time a new
Potter book or movie is released, but as for this Muggle, I’d like to see more progression in the story arcs and, dare I be so bold in requesting, some character complexity to these increasingly threadbare fantasy tapestries. When variations on the theme become the theme, then the stories have become a caricature of themselves, not to be taken seriously. This film is the biggest disappointment in the series to date because it merely riffs on what’s been done before while marking time until the finale arrives in the series capper.

Still, for all of its inherent flaws, and there are many, the
Half-Blood Prince has a handful of redeeming story elements. The movie’s action sequences, though few in number, are well executed and brilliantly visualized. The barn burning sequence, in particular, is well staged and adds some urgency and synergy to the doughy middle of the story. Also adding immeasurably to the story, and it’s truly impossible to overestimate the value of his presence or performance in the movie, is Jim Broadbent as Horace Slughorn, the new professor of potions. Broadbent brings charm and whimsy to his role, which serves as one of the only bright spots in an otherwise dreary film. Another plot element that works well is the intrigue surrounding the assassination attempts made against everyone’s favorite wizard, Gandalf, …er, Dumbledore. This subplot is one of the only story elements to generate any degree of nail-biting suspense in the movie.

In the end, the
Half-Blood Prince is an unsatisfactory chapter in Rowling’s enduringly popular fantasy saga and does little to move the meta-plot forward but insists on using repetitious story lines as filler with as little original material as possible to flesh out the movie. The table has been set for a rousing finale to the series. Hopefully Harry’s swan song will be a marked improvement over this half-hearted effort.

Rating: 2 1/2

Up (PG)

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Directed by: Pete Docter, Bob Peterson
Starring: Edward Asner
May 2009

“Up Through the Atmosphere, Up Where the Air is Clear…”


I always find it amusing when a movie title unwittingly becomes the description of its story, theme or overall effectiveness. For instance, the Coen Brothers’ Intolerable Cruelty and two Matthew McConaughey movies, Failure to Launch and Fool’s Gold, each embody the refined essence of their appellations. Whereas those movies accidentally stumbled into titular irony, Up clearly intended its prepositional title to describe not only the story’s frequent trajectory, but also its charming, heartwarming and…well, uplifting themes. And I’m sure Disney/Pixar hopes box office rankings and financial earnings will swiftly and exponentially head in the direction indicated in the title.

At some point in their story lines, each Pixar movie features a stirring or sentimental scene which effectively becomes the heart of the film. These infusions of emotion are often administered in a sequence of shots with a tear-jerking song performed by a big-name artist: Sarah McLachlan’s “When She Loved Me” in
Toy Story 2 and James Taylor’s “Our Town” in Cars, for instance. In Up, directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson hit you with a heart-rending haymaker even before you’ve had a chance to settle into your seat or scoop your first handful of popcorn.

The introductory montage succinctly and skillfully distills the entire life of Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner) into just over four minutes of screen time. The sequence is an efficient and effective series of images which encapsulates Carl’s experiences from when he was a young boy all the way up to the present, where Carl is a cantankerous old man. Highlighting key events—like Carl and Ellie’s wedding, the young couple buying and fixing up a house, learning that Ellie can’t bear children and growing old together—the montage conveys a lifetime of milestones and memories without a single line of dialog. The concise sequence enables spectators to immediately identify with Carl’s plight and sympathize with his present despair. As a microcosm of life’s most meaningful moments, the opening montage in
Up stands out as one of the finest examples of time compressed storytelling ever to have graced the silver screen.

Having already emotionally climaxed over the beautiful, wistful opening, I could’ve left the theater completely satisfied at that moment. Part of me wishes I had. Though the brilliant opening rapidly rockets the story to its affective and creative zenith, the balance of the film, including the high-flying finale, fails to reach the same elevation achieved in the first act. I guess it’s true what they say…what goes up must come down!

Ironically, the story starts to deflate once Carl and stowaway adventure scout, Russell, reach South America, roughly a third of the way into the movie. I use the word ironic because the balloons that keep the house aloft start popping about this time. The symbolism here is apropos since the story, just like Carl’s house, looses altitude and starts to sag in the middle of the film.

Carl’s house is a central focus of the film. The house is the means of transportation to South America, is present with Carl during the octogenarian’s journey through the jungle and represents a lifetime of memories which anchor, indeed shackle, Carl to the past which he must let go of before he can have the adventure of a lifetime. In order to fulfill his promise to his departed sweetheart, Carl uses a garden hose to pull his hovering house through the jungle toward its intended resting place near Paradise Falls. After a series of misadventures, which see the house being heavily damaged, set on fire and gorged of its furniture in order to assist the slowly deflating helium balloons in lifting the house, Carl is faced with the fateful decision to either save his life, and the lives of his newfound friends, or save his house.

Such instances of adult jeopardy can make you forget you’re watching an animated feature. Another mature moment occurs when Russell opens up and shares his story with Carl, who’s viewed the youth as an inconvenient nuisance up to this point. Russell recalls a curb where he and his absentee father used to sit on while eating ice cream and watching cars cruise by on lazy summer afternoons. The boy expresses fondness for a particular period of his past when his father was still a part of his life. From this moment on there’s a noticeable shift in the way Carl treats Russell. Carl’s wife is gone and so is Russell’s father; the two of them, along with talking dog Dug and sweet tooth snipe Kevin, become a surrogate family. As an antithesis to the healthy, nuclear family showcased in
The Incredibles, Pixar features a hurting, non-traditional familial unit in Up. In this way, Pixar has acknowledged the disparate realities and fractured identities of the postmodern family.

Heady material for a kids’ movie, to be sure, but have no fear, there’s more to this movie than sitting around a campfire singing Kumbaya. Soon enough we’re introduced to the movie’s villain, Muntz (Christopher Plummer), and his evil canines. The action reaches its apex during a climactic midair skirmish: the battle gives new meaning to the word dogfight since the pilots of the enemy planes are…dogs. Though the frenetic sequence is a ton of fun, it borrows heavily from any number of war movies with an occasional reference to action film franchises such as
Star Wars and Indiana Jones.

Up is a rousing and inspiring journey that fails to reach the lofty dimension suggested in the title due to an uneven narrative and overly pedestrian story elements (I’m talking to you, Kevin). In the end, the film is a mild disappointment because it never quite gains enough altitude to lift its story back up to the level of its brilliant opening. The montage, by itself, is finer than any other Pixar film in its entirety. It’s just too bad the rest of the movie failed to achieve such stratospheric heights.

Rating: 3

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (PG)

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Directed by: Shawn Levy
Starring: Ben Stiller
May 2009

“Silly Sequel to Amusing Original Fails to Take Flight”


In the original series Star Trek episode “A Piece of the Action,” the natural evolution of a race is tampered with when a space vessel crash lands on a planet where the imitative populace bases their society on a book they find in the wreckage. By the end of the episode, Captain Kirk and crew set the alien civilization back on a healthy course, but Dr. McCoy accidentally leaves behind his communicator, which will be pulled apart by the inquisitive species and will most likely produce a premature technological leap…and thus the cultural contamination is further perpetuated.

A strange way to start a review of the second
Night at the Museum movie, entitled Battle for the Smithsonian, right? Not at all. An ancillary subplot in the film involves the former museum security guard and now ostensibly successful inventor, Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) accidentally leaving his cell phone in a ticker tape, Times Square celebration post-WWII, via a living picture, which serves as a portal to the past. Unfortunately, this minor, yet significant, plot element is never resolved by movie’s end. What were the writers hoping to accomplish with this dangling plot thread? A sequel perhaps? Like the mechanical arm left behind in Terminator II which just begged another, though long delayed, film? Regrettably, the most interesting and promising aspect of the Museum sequel is this misplaced cell phone and not the many artifacts, antiquities, animals and historical figures that come to life after dark in the New York Museum of Natural History and now the Smithsonian Institution.

As for the museum denizens, many of the side characters have returned from the first film, including: Owen Wilson’s Jedediah, Robin William’s Teddy Roosevelt, Steve Coogan’s Octavius and Mizuo Peck’s Sacajawea. Some notorious or nefarious characters have joined the museum mishmash, including: evil Pharaoh Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria), Napoleon Bonaparte (Alain Chabat), Ivan the Terrible (Christopher Guest) and Al Capone (Jon Bernthal). The finest new addition to the cast is Amy Adams as Amelia Earhart. Her pluck, charm and tenacity in the face of danger are infectious; Adam’s portrayal of this icon of American aviation is the only element that lifts the leaden plot off the tarmac. And the formfitting flight pants certainly don’t detract from her character’s overall appeal.

The movie’s MacGuffin that everyone wants to get their hands on is the Tablet of Ahkmenrah, a powerful artifact that allows the museum’s exhibits to come to life after-hours. Kahmunrah and his minions vie with Alexander and Ivan for possession of the tablet, but before long a new group is added to the mix…mobsters from the early 20
th century (in one of the movie’s only clever moves, Capone and his cronies appear in black and white). The climactic confrontation takes place in the aviation wing of the museum and you just know Earhart’s piloting abilities will be called upon to save the day. A plot device doesn’t come any more telegraphed than this.

As with the first film, the rampant and widespread destruction of the museum must be resolved and rectified by dawn’s early light so that staff and patrons will have no idea that such calamitous events have transpired inside the exhibits overnight. It’s a similar plot device to the one used in Pixar’s
Toy Story films where the animated toys can have all manner of adventures while people aren’t looking, but must return to their previous spots and act dead when humans come into the room. It sure eradicates a lot of the suspense when the audience knows that no matter what happens—even if a bomb is dropped on the museum!—everything will be back to normal in the morning. In that sense, nothing ever really happens in these Museum movies since the majority of the plot and all of the action is wiped out by a narrative reset button. Sure, the audience remembers what happened, but is any of it really worth remembering?

So, will there be a third film or will
Museum become an extinct franchise? Who knows, just like Back to the Future II had its Café 80s, maybe someday in the distant future we’ll have a Night at the Museum museum.

Rating: 1 1/2

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (PG-13)

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Directed by: Gavin Hood
Starring: Hugh Jackman
May 2009

“Vengeance is Mine, Says the Adamantium Man”


My initial reaction to the announcement that there would be an X-Men prequel focusing on the genesis of Wolverine was, “Why do we need a Wolverine origins tale…didn’t we already learn his back story in the X-Men trilogy?” After seeing Logan’s (here “Jimmy” Logan, but I wouldn’t call him that to his face) story fleshed out in more detail in the new movie, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, I still think my question is valid and would like to direct it to the producers and powers-that-be in the Marvel universe.

There’s no question that over the last decade Hugh Jackman has made the role of Wolverine his own—few would argue that his is one of the most memorable and enduring in Marvel’s stable of comic-to-big-screen heroes. Here, however, the feral warrior is nobler, wiser and, dare I say, tamer than he was in the
X-Men films, which inhibits a great deal of the character’s irascible charm. What made Wolverine work so well in the X-Men trilogy was his iconoclastic irreverence toward the good mutants at Prof. X’s (Patrick Stewart, who makes a small cameo here that vastly differs from his short cameo as King Richard at the end of Robin Hood: Men in Tights) school for the gifted and his utter disdain for the evil mutants, lead by Ian McKellen’s magnificently malevolent Magneto.

The opening credits appear over a well-crafted progression of battles from the Civil War to D-Day to Vietnam, all of which feature the daring exploits of Logan (Jackman) and his brother Vincent (Liev Schreiber), who kill and are killed, and resurrect to fight another day. The movie picks up in the present day (which appears to be circa 1970 something) with General William Stryker’s (Danny Huston) team demanding, at gunpoint, Nigerians to give up the location of a rare rock. When things get out of hand, translated as Vincent going on a killing spree, Logan turns his back on violent Vincent and quits Stryker’s team of mutant soldiers.

Six years later we see Logan getting in touch with his inner lumberjack in the Canadian Rockies. He has a lover, Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins), and has found contentment away from the deeds of his former life. However, the atrocities he’s committed still haunt his dreams at night. As fate (and director Gavin Hood) would have it, Stryker discovers Logan’s hideout as does Vincent, who kills Logan’s girlfriend. But it’s all a ploy to lure Logan into undergoing a surgery that will give him the ability to defeat his brother and avenge Kayla’s wanton murder. The procedure turns formidable Logan into invincible Wolverine and a hero is born, or reborn if you’ve seen the earlier
X-Men movies.

Save for some nifty swordplay by Ryan Reynold’s Wade Wilson and some mighty fancy shooting by Daniel Henney’s marksman Agent Zero, the first half hour of the film drags on like a platitudinous commencement speech. There are a few touching character moments between Logan and Kayla and the location work is beautifully captured, but the early stages of the film are far too static and uneventful for an action picture. Unfortunately, the action comes in fits and spurts throughout the rest of the movie too. In the vast majority of films I’m thankful for character segues in between action sequences, but when the vignettes are this dull (and it’s physically painful to say this), I’d almost prefer a Michael Bay action first/story second paradigm because at least that way I know I’ll stay awake.

Wolverine’s entourage is as tenuous and transient as the plot: Dominic Monaghan’s electricity manipulator, Chris “Bolt” Bradley, is killed off within the first half hour…about the same time Reynolds’ Wilson disappears, later to reappear as the movie’s ultimate villain, Deadpool. Since working with Stryker, the once ripped mercenary, Fred Dukes (Kevin Durand from
Wild Hogs), has let himself go and now resembles Scottish speaking Fat Bastard (Mike Myers) in the Austin Powers movies. Scott Summers (Tim Pocock), a.k.a. Cyclops, has a place of prominence on the movie poster, but other than slicing open the roof of his school with his patented ocular blast, he doesn’t even factor into the story. Remy LeBeau/Gambit (Taylor Kitsch of TVs Friday Night Lights) doesn’t make an appearance until halfway through the movie, disappears after a Logan/Vincent melee and shows up too late to help Logan and Vincent take out Reynolds’ creepy villain (a rare instance where I wished the concluding battle was protracted: I wanted to see more applications and combinations of Deadpool’s assortment of mutant powers come into play). After the battle, Wolverine charges Gambit with making sure the kids get to safety. However, by the time Gambit catches up with the kids, they’re already safely aboard Prof. X’s helicopter, making Gambit’s presence in the movie utterly superfluous. What a waste of a great character! What a colossal disappointment!

That last statement accurately sums up
X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which isn’t a terrible movie, but certainly doesn’t live up to the lofty expectations placed upon it by clamoring fans and curious cinephiles. Although Wolverine would’ve been more polished in the hands of an A-list director, the movie’s ailments clearly lie with David Benioff and Skip Wood’s clunky script. More action and a more intelligent utilization and deployment of characters should see a marked improvement in the sequel, should this mediocre effort inspire one. If not, at least Wolverine has finally received a moment in the spotlight, even though this isn’t the royal treatment he deserved. Next up: X-Men Origins: Banshee. Let’s see how many theater speakers we can blow!

Rating: 2 1/2

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (PG-13)

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Directed by: David Fincher
Starring: Brad Pitt
December 2008

“Masterly Telling of Fitzgerald’s Timeless Tale”


Originally, I had considered writing this review backwards, in keeping with the movie’s reverse polarity plot, but decided it would require too much effort to write and would be too demanding on the reader. So then, this linear review of director David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button will attempt to convey the essence of the story’s unusual plot device, which was first conceived by F. Scott Fitzgerald in his short story of the same name, published in 1922. The film certainly lives up to the curious part of its title since it chronicles events in the life of the eponymous character, an altogether average man save for the fact that he ages in reverse.

The story is set in New Orleans in 1918. Born as a tiny, wrinkly old man, Benjamin is raised by a black nursing home worker, Queenie Weathers (Taraji P. Henson). During the early years of his life, Benjamin’s weak legs require him to walk around with the assistance of crutches, but he’s miraculously healed of his infirmity at an evangelical tent meeting. At age twelve, the course of Benjamin’s life is forever altered when he first meets redheaded Daisy. And so his life goes—year after year filled with successes and failures, a war, an affair, a few heartbreaks, an occasional happiness and the loss of many friends—until Benjamin dies as a baby at age eighty-four.

After accepting the narrative conceit and identifying with the plight of the characters,
Curious is a profoundly moving examination of what it means to be human and the brevity of our existence. Achieving that level of appreciation might be a chore for many viewers due to the film’s unusual mode of story conveyance, a large number of uneventful dramatic sequences and a running time of two hours and forty-six minutes. As such, the film may end up being immensely enjoyable for some or tortuously interminable for others.

As for me, I’m a proponent of the former, largely because of the intriguing story line, Fincher’s superlative direction and deeply affecting performances by Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton. Despite the film’s length, I never once looked at my watch or started squirming in my seat…a testament to the enduring salience of Fitzgerald’s source material and Fincher’s incisive vision in translating it to the big screen. A lot of hoopla about the director’s creative prowess, to be sure, but this is a film that could’ve derailed at multiple junctures were it not for Fincher’s efforts in realizing this sprawling story in personal and meaningful ways.

As was teased earlier, the movie’s performances are nothing short of astounding. Pitt mesmerizes in a role that has redefined his career and left little doubt as to his potential to become, as he has here, a powerhouse dramatic actor. Pitt’s age appropriate acting, aided in no small measure by the make-up and CG effects which incrementally transform the actor into progressively younger versions of his character, is absolutely flawless.

Cate Blanchett, again, defies the boundaries of what a performer can achieve as Benjamin’s childhood friend turned romantic interest, Daisy. Daisy is the film’s most difficult role to play since she not only occupies the closest orbit around Benjamin, but also rotates in the opposite direction from him. Like ships passing in the night, Daisy must come to terms with the realization that a relationship with Benjamin is doomed to fail before it even begins. And yet, such knowledge doesn’t dissuade her from bestowing upon Benjamin the rarest form of devotion…she willingly trades a few years of joy and fulfillment for decades of thankless service as a caregiver for her continually regressing soul mate. Despite Benjamin’s status as central character, Daisy, as the impetus behind Benjamin’s every action and decision, is the film’s focal point and emotional anchor.

One of the movie’s profound ironies is how an intimate story about one man’s life can feel so epic. The film is a poignant exploration of our own mortality and a powerful reminder that our lives are defined by the sum of our choices, the totality of our experiences and the indelible mark we make on those we leave behind. If there’s a silver lining to passing on, the movie captures it fully; the warm glow of a gilded gloaming is a signature seen throughout Fincher’s extraordinary film. It’s a gentle reminder of the impending sunset that faces us all and to seize the day while we possess the capacity to do so.

Curious is life affirming, but also life assessing. The movie challenges us, both with its unusual mode of storytelling and with Benjamin’s reverse chronology, to conceptualize existence in terms foreign to our own. When Benjamin’s retrograde life cycle is juxtaposed with the forward trajectory of our own reality, different aspects of humanity are revealed that otherwise would’ve been underappreciated or overlooked. This melding of timelines allows us to see ourselves with fresh eyes, as if examining our race from an outsider’s perspective. The movie’s greatest gift is the understated, yet profound, manner in which it reveals just how precious a commodity this thing called life really is, regardless of which direction we age.

Those who can endure the film’s length and implausible science for the sake of this truly unique cinematic experience will be swept away by its rich characterizations and enthralling story of a life lived well…in reverse. The human condition, with its setbacks and triumphs, ecstasies and travails rarely has found so subtle and powerful an expression in the cinema.

Rating: 4

The Tale of Despereaux (G)

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Directed by: Sam Fell, Robert Stevenhagen
Starring: Matthew Broderick
December 2008

“Non-Pixar Animated Flick Has Lots of Heart but Little Magic”


If they had extreme sports for mice, giant-eared Despereaux would own every record. Despereaux leaps through the air and steals a piece of cheese from a mouse trap without even breaking a sweat. His friends watch in amazement. None of them would ever attempt such a circus act…not even for fresh cheese.

Despereaux fails to cower when his teacher shows him a picture of a cat. To make matters worse, he doesn’t recoil when he’s shown a picture of a needle. Filled with amazement, Despereaux reverently asks, “Is that a sword?” Despereaux’s teacher calls an emergency conference with his parents; something has to be done about the misfit mouse. Like many of us, Despereaux just isn’t quite normal.

Based on the Newbery Award-winning children’s book of the same name by Kate DiCamillo,
The Tale of Despereaux, judging from its marketing campaign, seemed poised to be the family film of the holiday season. Armed with a built-in audience, one of the most adorable animated creatures to grace the big screen in years and a fairytale story brimming with adventure and romance, it’s inconceivable that such a sure-fire crowd-pleaser could be a disappointment. And yet it is.

So what went wrong with
Despereaux? Was it the selection of vocal talent? Definitely not! The movie boasts an impressive array of A-list luminaries, all of whom perfectly match the character they’re voicing. If you want to make great soup you need the right ingredients and any producer would kill to have names like Matthew Broderick, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Watson, Tracey Ullman, Kevin Klein, William H. Macy, Stanley Tucci, Ciaran Hinds, Robbie Coltrane, Frank Langella, Christopher Lloyd and Sigourney Weaver stirred into their story stock.

Was it the animation? Doubtful. Although the film’s palette and aesthetic is measurably more earth-tone and moderate than most animated forays these days,
Despereaux is beautifully drawn; one of the movie’s greatest advantages is that it doesn’t try to emulate Pixar’s plush look. My only gripes with the animation are that the humans look like they’ve had their heads pinched in a vise and that the underground scenes are far too drab, especially for the impressionable kiddies in the audience.

Was it the story? Most likely. Will McRobb’s adaptation of DiCamillo’s story, though ambitious, resembles a ball of yarn that’s been pawed at and kicked around the room all day; you can discern the story’s overall core, but many plot strings lay strewn over the surface of the patchwork plot. The first major problem with the story is its perpetual POV shift between Despereaux (Broderick), rat-looking mouse Roscuro (Hoffman), Princess Pea (Watson) and the plump maid, Miggery Sow (Ullman). As the story bounces back and forth, it’s easy to loose the through line and difficult to discern an overarching theme or moral. Even though all of the plot threads eventually join to form a taut braid by the end, the main story—the tale of Dexperaux—is often subordinated by the movie’s riveting (Roscuro’s desperate attempts to break away from a hoard of nefarious rats), terrifying (the princess is kidnapped by the same rodent throng) and heartwarming (Miggery and her long-lost father are reunited) subplots.

The biggest narrative failing is the persistent, heavy-handed narration that not only spells out everything in the story, but also tells us how we should feel about it. Sigourney Weaver’s melodious intonations fit well with the movie’s storybook mood, but the narrated segments impede the flow of the story; serving, in essence, as filmic speed bumps. The movie’s slow pacing is directly attributable to its excessive exposition, which comes from the desire to be as faithful to the source material as possible; an honorable intention yet detrimental inhibition where the plot is concerned.

In the final analysis, the movie’s mixed results simply may be due to the fact that it wasn’t made by Pixar. However unfair that statement may be,
The Tale of Despereaux is still an above average animated tale; and at the end of the day, most kids won’t discriminate too much over which studio produced it. The movie deals with many themes such as standing up to evil, breaking the chains of hurt and extending forgiveness to others, but it doesn’t possess that one crystal-clear concept that drives home a movie’s message. Such streamlined storytelling catapulted each of the Pixar films into the A tier of animated films. Despereaux will have to settle for B tier status, but there are much worse fates…it might not be WALL-E, but at least it isn’t Fly Me to the Moon.

Rating: 2 1/2

Twilight (PG-13)

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Directed by: Catherine Hardwicke
Starring: Kristen Stewart
November 2008

“Teenage Romance Takes a Walk on the Dark Side”


In 2001, the WB network took a chance on a different kind of superhero show; their motto was “no tights and no flights.” The series takes place in Smallville (the show’s title in case you haven’t guessed it), Kansas, and focuses on superhuman happenings amid everyday, rural life; the town definitely lives up to its name. The show features a handful of flawed yet interesting adults, who take a backseat to the well-adjusted, multiracial students at the local high school. Each of the teens has a defining hobby, i.e., newspaper editor, athlete, coffee shop proprietor, and a few even display special abilities, especially an angst-ridden teen named Clark Kent.

Though a point-by-point comparison breaks down in places,
Twilight, based on the teen novel of the same name by Stephenie Meyer, is similar enough to Smallville to validate the reference. The movie opens with unsettled teen, Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) embarking on a cross-country journey from her mom’s place in Phoenix, AZ to her dad’s house in Forks, WA…purportedly the wettest place in the continental US. Forks is overcast, brooding and moody, much like Twilight’s melancholic heroine. As Bella adjusts to her new high school, she meets Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), a pale-skinned heartthrob who looks even more despondent than Bella. Edward and his mysterious, mishmash family are misunderstood by the town’s populace, many of whom believe the Cullen’s are part of a cult. Of course, as the story would have it, Edward and Bella fall hopelessly in love and they live happily ever after. Well, not quite.

There are several ingredients that make this story irresistible. Starting with the source material, Meyer’s world is fully formed, which makes it easy for us to be drawn into the reality of the movie.
Twilight embodies many universal themes, such as: overcoming prejudice, the struggle to fit in and not overdoing the glitter. Well, maybe not the last one, but the scene I’m referring to will go down as the film’s biggest blunder.

The movie’s setting is simply magical. I’ve been to Forks, and I can tell you it looks just like it does in the movie. In fact, the location work so completely captures the feel of the damp, musty, puddle-pocked burg that my allergies flared up just looking at it.

The movie’s money scene takes place right after Edward gives Bella a piggyback ride to the top of a towering pine tree. In a beautifully filmed sequence, the camera swoops down and circles around the teenage lovebirds (it’s reported that the elements were so severe the actors were nearly blown off the boughs). Director Catherine Hardwicke then cuts to a panoramic view of a mist-draped valley where a writhing river snakes its way down the valley toward the mountains on the distant horizon. Anyone who’s been to the Pacific northwest will be flooded with memories at seeing this gloomy, yet awe-inspiring vista.

Hardwicke and her casting director have assembled an exceptionally talented and attractive group of young actors, many of whom will undoubtedly go on to become major Hollywood stars. I don’t think anyone would argue that Pattinson and Stewart have enough chemistry to stock a science lab, but
Twilight is much more than a two pony show. In fact, Twilight’s cast may qualify as the finest ensemble of no-namers I’ve ever seen in a film. Standout performances are turned in my Billy Burke as Bella’s dad, Charlie, Peter Facinelli as Dr. Carlisle Cullen, the patriarch of his clan, Taylor Lautner as Jacob, Bella’s Native American friend and Cam Gigandet as James, Bella’s stalker.

If you’re familiar with
Twilight’s premise, you’ve surely noticed by now that I’ve taken extra care not to reveal even the most basic secrets of the film. I’ve shown such restraint so that people who haven’t read the books (like me), can enjoy the film on its own terms without having everything spoiled before they enter the theater. Though most people will have prior knowledge of Edward’s secret, my aim is to preserve the mystery for the three people in Zambia who’ve never heard of Twilight.

Whereas
Harry Potter has captivated kids and pre-teens, Meyer’s novels have captured the hearts and minds of teens everywhere and even a few fantasy-prone adults like me (my favorite scene is the “baseball” game). Twilight is an engrossing world, made memorable by its exciting set of fresh conventions and original characters. I would think that any degree of box office success would guarantee a series of films. Up next: New Moon.

Rating: 3

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (PG)

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Directed by: Andrew Adamson
Starring: Ben Barnes
May 2008

“Magical Sequel Takes Us Beyond the Book”


To be honest, the second book in C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia series, Prince Caspian, was never a favorite of mine. So the fact that the film version has an identical rating to the first movie, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, means director Andrew Adamson did a phenomenal job of preserving what worked in the book while broadening the scope and depth of the story. Having just reread the book a month before the movie’s release, I’m fairly aware of Adamson’s adaptations to the story—most additions are minor with the main change being more political intrigue among King Miraz and his traitorous lords. Unfortunately, expanding Miraz’ back story only adds to the confusion over Caspian’s role in the whole mess and still does little to elevate Miraz from misguided opportunist to malevolent villain, which is what the film really needed.

As the movie opens, Miraz’ wife delivers a son; the arrival of an heir to the throne places Miraz’ nephew, Caspian, in great danger. Fleeing the castle, Caspian stumbles upon some woodland creatures who tell him they are “original” Narnians. This comes as a surprise to Caspian, for when his people, the Telmarines, arrived in Narnia they drove out all of its native inhabitants (talking animals, dwarves, fauns, etc.), or so they thought. Caspian agrees to help the creatures reclaim their land by overthrowing his tyrannical uncle. When the battle goes ill, Caspian blows Susan’s magical horn and the four Pevensie children from the first story are magically transported back to the enchanted realm of Narnia—though it’s only been a year since their first visit, 1,300 years have passed in Narnia.

The four former kings and queens of Narnia—Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley)—are joined by Caspian (Ben Barnes), Trumpkin (Peter Dinklage) and Nikabrik (Warwick Davis) in their campaign against Miraz (Sergio Castellitto). Other CG companions among the multi-species army are: Trufflehunter the badger (voiced by Ken Stott), Reepicheep the valiant mouse (Eddie Izzard), Aslan the majestic lion (Liam Neeson) and Patterwig the Squirrel (voiced by and the movie’s composer, Harry Gregson-Williams).

The battle scenes have been expanded from Lewis’ scanty skirmishes, and though they couldn’t hope to compete with
LOTR’s epic sequences, Caspian’s are well-executed, especially the night raid on Miraz’ castle where griffins are used as drop ships to sneak in Caspian’s strike team. Several other nifty effects are: Narnians creating a cave-in underneath Miraz’ army, marching trees lassoing enemy soldiers with their tentacle-like roots and a river king who breaks the bridge and drowns Miraz’ troops. The trouble with all of these sequences is that they’ve already been done in LOTR. Granted, there are very few things that haven’t been done, and done better, by LOTR in the fantasy arena, but some originality would’ve been welcome.

If Medieval battles aren’t your thing, there’s plenty else to enjoy here; like lovely Lucy’s steadfast belief in Aslan, Edmund’s newfound belief in Lucy and Caspian’s fateful decision to turn his back on his own people. There’s some timely symbolism in the way the creatures and trees reclaim their land from the evil Telmarines (a lost tribe of humans). The passage of time in Narnia and the visible deterioration of once-great fortresses is a disheartening reality for the children and factors into the movie’s narrative in unexpected ways. The cinematography of devastated castle Cair Paravel and its surrounding mountains is absolutely breathtaking: New Zealand has become to fantasy flicks what the Midwest is to westerns.

The addition of new companions, like Trumpkin, Reepicheep and the centaur Glenstorm (John Cornell), keeps things fresh and lively and Adamson’s conscious decision to omit some of the book’s more kiddie names, like giant Wimbleweather, was a prudent one (in fact, he defaults to D.L.F. “Dear Little Friend” for Trumpkin, who, admittedly has a pretty hokey name himself). The only things I didn’t like in the film were Peter’s parochial attitude and bullying ways throughout the tale, the overlong sword fight between Peter and Miraz and the overly contrived scene where Lucy rides into the wood to find Aslan.

Though not as magical as
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian is remarkable because it achieves nearly as much with less engaging source material. Now, on to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, my favorite Narnia story! Can’t wait to see what Adamson does with the pool at Deathwater.

Rating: 3

Iron Man (PG-13)

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Directed by: Jon Favreau
Starring: Robert Downey Jr.
May 2008

“Scrappy Hero Takes War on Terror to New Heights”


Let’s face it, in the history of dubious casting for superheroes, 42 year-old Robert Downey Jr. has to rank near the top, right? I mean, picking George Clooney to play Batman would seem less risky and more of a natural fit. Oh wait, Clooney did play Batman (and even with an abysmal script I still think he filled the cowl more adequately than Kilmer, which was another casting head-scratcher).

So go ahead and admit it. I’m sure you, like me, were more than just a little surprised when you first heard that Downey Jr. had been tapped to play the mechanized Marvel mainstay. Still, no one is more surprised, or grateful, to be playing billionaire playboy Tony Stark, and his titanium plated alter-ego, than Downey Jr. himself. “I never thought I’d have a shot at doing something like this because of my past,” Downey Jr. shared with
Empire (Apr. 08). That brand of humility stands in…er, stark contrast to Downey Jr’s character, the Bill Gates of weapons manufacturing who exudes supreme confidence in his abilities, but whose flippant manner, irreverent attitude and self-absorption relegates him to a life of isolation, bereft of friendship save for his loyal assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).

Following a successful demonstration of his newly designed Jericho missile in the deserts of Afghanistan, Stark’s motorcade of military Humvees is ambushed. As he runs for cover, a piece of shrapnel impales Stark in the chest. Black out. Waking inside a cave, Stark finds a circular electromagnetic device in his chest, which is keeping the metal fragments from working their way toward his heart. The device is powered by a car battery. But don’t worry, the battery doesn’t run out of juice before Stark creates an implant from odds and ends provided by his terrorist captors. Using these same scraps, the terrorists order Stark to build a Jericho missile from memory and scratch, but they’re a little slow in figuring out that what Stark is forging isn’t a WMD, but a body suit wrought from iron. Funny how the two could be so easily confused! Stark/Iron Man Mk. I plows his way through terrorists, destroys their camp (which, ironically, contains many of Stark’s munitions) and is rescued from the desert heat by conveniently placed helicopters, commanded by Stark’s military pal, Col. Rhodes (Terrence Howard).

And so we have Iron Man’s origins tale. Well, not quite…I left out the villain. Obadiah Stane, right-hand man of Stark’s deceased father, was slighted when Stark came of age and rightfully took over Stark Industries. When he catches wind of Stark’s next great breakthrough, Stane builds a Hulk-sized version of Stark’s body armor and dubs it Iron Monger. Admittedly, some of this is a bit silly; like how they can create these exorbitantly expensive suits seemingly on demand. Though Stane’s lecture to Stark during the climactic melee is patently hackneyed, Stane is actually a decent adversary, largely because he has motive, usurping Stark’s authority and notoriety, and means, undermining Stark’s interests and using Stark’s own billions against him. Armed with a distinctly resonant baritone voice (which you can hear lauding the dependability of Duracell batteries on TV ads) and an impressively wide acting range, Bridges’ Stane is a plausible antagonist because he’s the first villain in recent memory that isn’t insane, mad-at-the-world, given to grandiose speeches, needlessly narcissistic or downright inane.

I used the word “plausible” because it’s one of director Jon Favreau’s (
Zathura) watchwords for his film. Favreau told Empire, “There are so many superhero movies now, how do you differentiate yourself?” Well, plausibility for one; but a slick-looking red and gold armor suit and high-end FX doesn’t hurt either. There’s plenty of hi-tech eye candy in the film, like the high-speed game of cat-and-mouse between two F-22 Raptors and our eponymous hero, but there are actually very few (compared to other recent superhero flicks) battle scenes: I’d say the ratio is 70% story and 30% action. An army of eight writers hashed out the story and screenplay, and that melting pot of scribes has created an accessible hero, a believable villain and a storyline ripped from today’s headlines. Thankfully, the movie’s political commentary is treated even-handedly, and in the post-9/11 world, Iron Man has become the very personification of our hopes for a terror-free world. The first big screen appearance of this comic hero couldn’t be timelier.

Favreau has crafted taut action scenes and tight dramatic segues, like the skillfully nuanced non-romance between Stark and Potts; can’t wait to see what happens to their relationship in the sequel. Yes, sequel! The way I see it, the only way this doesn’t become a franchise is if Iron Man runs into Magneto in the next film. Canned Stark!

Rating: 3

The Forbidden Kingdom (PG-13)

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Directed by: Rob Minkoff
Starring: Jackie Chan
April 2008

“No Tigers or Dragons in Li and Chan’s Kingdom


Kung Fu movie fanatic, Jason (Michael Angarano), visits his neighborhood video store to feed his habit. While perusing the video shelves, something in the back room catches Jason’s eyes—the curious teen discovers an ancient bow staff which the store’s doting, Asian proprietor explains will someday be returned to its rightful owner. Just then, a gang holds up the store. Picking up the carven staff to defend himself, Jason is instantaneously transported back in time to an alternate past in the Orient.

Though essential to the story, the time travel element causes a multitude of discrepancies, not the least of which is how a teen from present day Boston can understand and apparently speak ancient Chinese. Another problem is the anthropomorphic dialogue; many of the movie’s contemporary lines make no attempt at sounding period-appropriate, whatsoever. But no matter, we can forgive such gaffes and even suspend our disbelief to accept the existence of a Jade Warlord or a Monkey King or even the Gate of No Gate (easily the silliest name for a time portal I’ve ever heard) for the sake of the movie’s innovative, beautifully choreographed fight sequences. Keeping one foot firmly planted on the ground with the other hovering in the mystical air of supernatural films like
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the magic employed by the immortal characters in The Forbidden Kingdom is an Eastern fusion of Harry Potter-style incantations and Jedi-like energy manipulation.

Putting aside these niggling details, director Ron Minkoff’s martial arts showcase has many components that work like...er, magic. Besides John Fusco’s well-executed script and the spirited performances by Jet Li and Jackie Chan, the film’s technical elements distinguish
The Forbidden Kingdom from other melee-centric Asian action films—this movie puts the art in martial arts. Still, even with excellent location work, finely crafted props, sets and costumes and sweeping cinematography, The Forbidden Kingdom’s production values still fall short of those featured in the multiple Oscar-winning Memoirs of a Geisha…but it’s a valiant effort just the same.

The Forbidden Kingdom will never be found on a martial arts top ten list, which is probably the film’s greatest asset. Not nearly as raw or graphic as the champs of the chop-socky genre, The Forbidden Kingdom could be classified as a family film if not for its action violence. And, with its coming of age, bully avenging narrative the film could be classified as the new millennium’s version of The Karate Kid. Mr. Miyagi would be proud!

Rating: 3

Horton Hears a Who! (G)

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Directed by: Jimmy Hayward, Steve Martino
Starring: Jim Carrey
March 2008

“Horton Hears a Heavy-handed Whovie”


Somewhere along the way we stopped requiring movie stars to play characters and simply allowed them to play themselves. Here we have two comedy czars, Jim Carrey and Steve Carell, voicing characters that are so distinctly them; they’ve given typecasting a bad name. The detrimental drawback to this star-centric model is that it prevents the audience from discovering the characters on their own. Here we have Horton the elephant (Carrey), who finds a speck containing a diminutive civilization of Whos, and the mayor (Carell) of that tiny village known as Whoville (not to be confused with the other Whoville in How the Grinch Stole Christmas). Despite the fact that we never see the actors’ faces, Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who! is nothing more than The Carrey and Carell Show—very little originality gets past their blockade of manic antics and slapstick silliness.

The story is well-known from Seuss’ children’s book and the 1970 animated TV special narrated by Hans Conried. With its homily on the dangers of intolerance, personified by a rigid, rule-enforcing kangaroo (voiced with great effect by Carol Burnett), the story is more timely and relevant than ever. It’s also more politically charged than ever thanks to growing unrest and increasing polarization in our country. But should politics be mentioned in the same breath as an animated kids flick?

In the movie, the citizens of Whoville undergo radical climate shifts as Horton transports them to their new home; a secluded cave atop a nearby mountain. There, the Whos will be safe for all time…or at least until the bear returns for hibernation. There’s a thinly veiled reference to global warming (now known as “climate change” since the Earth is currently experiencing a cooling trend) in reverse when morning frost on the speck turns Whoville into an arctic waste. It’s profoundly unfortunate that this feel-good family film was ruined by insidious agendas from environmental alarmists and social nannyists. Granted, there’s a positive message in the movie’s most memorable mantra, “A person’s a person, no matter how small,” but it’s just so much stilted sermonizing made all the more unpalatable by force-fed moralizing and in-your-face patronizing.

The CGI is startlingly photo-realistic and the overall aesthetic is vintage Seuss, but the movie’s creative elements are overshadowed by its heavy-handed plot in much the same way that the story is held hostage by its larger-than-life stars. In the end, this isn’t a terrible film, but it isn’t the royal treatment that Seuss’ timeless tale deserves. But kids will love it, and when all is said and done that’s all that really matters.

Rating: 2 1/2

10,000 BC (PG-13)

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Directed by: Roland Emmerich
Starring: Camilla Belle
March 2008

“Woolly Wonka and the Raiders from Early Egypt”


When Roland Emmerich, director of such mega-blockbusters as Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, decided to do a historical adventure he really rolled back the calendar. Based on sketchy historical evidence, wild suppositions and mammoth-sized leaps of logic, 10,000 BC tells a simple, straightforward tale of courage, passion, rivalry and prophecy with dreadlocks and loincloths to boot.

The movie opens with a scene-setting narration by Omar Sharif, which introduces the main players—blue-eyed ingénue Evolet (Camilla Belle) and brash hunter D’Leh (Steven Strait), childhood friends turned adult lovers—their mountaintop village and their plight; shrinking mammoth populations threaten to bring on starvation and the much feared “last hunt.” The story heats up when the four-legged demons (proto-Egyptian slavers) raid the camp and carry off Evolet and many other villagers. Tribal elder Tic’Tic (Cliff Curtis), D’Leh, and two other tribesmen embark on a harrowing rescue mission—complete with narrow escapes, chance encounters and the occasional evisceration by a prehistoric ostrich—in order to retrieve their friends and loved ones.

With
10,000 BC, Emmerich and co-writer Harald Kloser have found the secret to being predictable without being boring. Of course, love him or hate him, boring is not a word generally associated with Emmerich or his films. Besides breathtaking cinematography (shot in South Africa, New Zealand, Thailand and Namibia) of snowcapped mountain ranges, sweltering jungles, tall grasslands and gorgeous desert vistas that would make director David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia) drool, the movie’s effects-laden action sequences are undoubtedly the movie’s cornerstone. Let’s face it, without the action scenes the movie, with its no-name cast, alternate-history lesson, contrived storyline and monosyllabic dialogue, wouldn’t have amounted to very much.

It’s reported (
Empire/March, 08) that the animal animation took two effects houses two years to complete. At one point, when rendering estimates exceeded the time remaining until the movie’s premier, Emmerich made the executive decision to reduce mammoth fur density by 50 percent. Despite this CG shearing, the mammoths look surprisingly respectable, mostly because their movements resemble present day pachyderms. The same cannot be said of the saber-toothed tigers which are embarrassingly fake-looking, both in appearance and movement. As far as feral felines are concerned, the film’s saber-toothed cats represent a significant regression from Narnia’s lion, Aslan, which had its own CG challenges. Fortunately, the ancient tigers only appear in a few scenes, and soon enough we’re back to watching the not-so-woolly mammoths stampeding down pyramid ramps, knocking off anyone or anything that gets in their way like massive, prehistoric bowling balls.

For all of its historical inaccuracies and screenplay shortcomings,
10,000 BC is a visual spectacle, pure and simple. Proudly showcasing breathtaking backgrounds, Emmerich gets it right when he uses real locations instead of CG ones (Lucas’ prequels suffered from the reverse). There’s something uniquely organic and exotic in Emmerich’s use of various locales in the film; each landscape—tundra, tropical, desert, etc.—serves to characterize the different climates while providing color, texture, atmosphere and, dare I say it, artistry.

Emmerich’s unbound imagination and unbridled vision have forged
10,000 BC into a unique viewing experience. However, when a sequel is excavated, let’s hope the writers find some semblance of a storyline for 9,990 BC. With any luck, that’s also the year the saber-toothed tiger became extinct.

Rating: 2

The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep (PG)

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Directed by: Jay Russell
Starring: Emily Watson
December 2007

“A Water Horse and His Boy”


From Disney and Walden Media, who brought us The Chronicles of Narnia, comes The Water Horse, a heart-warming origins tale of how the Loch Ness Monster—or water horse—came into being and why all knowledge of this mythical sea creature has been lost. The film is based on Dick King-Smith’s children’s novel of the same name.

The movie opens in a Scottish pub where an old man (Brian Cox) tells a young couple the “true” story of the water horse. His tale begins with young Angus MacMorrow (Alex Etel) discovering a watermelon-shaped egg on a shell-hunting expedition in the loch near his family’s manor. The egg soon hatches and produces a baby water horse (if you’ve ever studied dinosaurs, the little beastie looks similar to the plesiosaur). Angus does his best to raise the affable animal, which he nicknames Crusoe, but it becomes evident within a matter of days that the toilet bowl, bathtub and outdoor fountain won’t be able to contain the rapidly growing creature for much longer. This, of course, presents a big problem for Angus, who wants to keep Crusoe as a pet but finds it increasingly difficult to hide the water horse from his mother.

The Water Horse offers quite a bit more than what it revealed in its family friendly trailer, which painted the film in pre-teen hues. There’s a subplot involving a Scottish regiment setting up a base of operations near the loch. Besides providing a context for the film (1942 in war-torn Britain), this story element balances the more pedestrian moments with mature themes like war and death, topics Alex is confronted with every day as he awaits his father’s return from the front lines. Another adult storyline focuses on mysterious handyman, Mowbray (Ben Chaplin), who haplessly stumbles into a love triangle with Angus’ widowed mother, Anne (Emily Watson) and the starchy Capt. Thomas Hamilton (David Morrissey).

The film’s cinematography is superb; effectively incorporating backgrounds from the extensive on-location shoots in New Zealand and Scotland, the movie boasts spectacular panoramic views of the loch and its surrounding mountains. The CG rendering of the creature—forged in
LOTR’s Weta Workshop—is first-rate. The water horse-back riding scene, where Angus is forced to confront his fear of water, is the creative and emotional apex of the film and is sure to thrill audience members of all ages.

Despite borrowing liberally from movies like
E.T., Free Willy and Eragon, The Water Horse is a charming tale of courage, compassion and friendship. The concluding scene opens the door for a possible sequel, but whether or not a follow-up is forthcoming, The Water Horse has already proven that it’s much more than just a one trick pony.

Rating: 3

The Golden Compass (PG-13)

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Directed by: Chris Weitz
Starring: Nicole Kidman
December 2007

“Gobblers and Witches and Bears…Oh, My!”


So what’s the big deal? Where’s the justification for all of the controversy? After hearing, ad nauseum, about the purportedly anti-God, anti-Catholic church themes in Philip Pullman’s novel-turned-movie the last few months, I just don’t see it. Sure there’s the whole communicating with spirits thing…and I suppose it doesn’t help that those animal companions are called daemons. Then there’s the Magisterium, the controlling body of monks, friars and priests, some of whom conspire in dark shadows like the Cigarette Man and his gang in the X-Files; but this certainly isn’t the first secret society ever to plot and scheme in the shady corner of a big screen, and just because many of them carry on like Jesuits doesn’t actually mean they are. After all, this is a fantasy world so we can suspend our disbelief, right?

The Golden Compass, the first book in Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, features children far less adept at magic than those in the Harry Potter movies and a storyline far less epic than the one employed in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s commonly accepted that every fantasy story written since The Lord of the Rings trilogy has implemented, to some degree or dimension, J.R.R. Tolkien’s tropes, themes and iconography—the foundational elements for what we now refer to as fantasy fiction. Although certainly no exception to this assertion, Compass has blended the notable works of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling and other celebrated fantasy scribes into a rich and intricate tapestry that challenges, if not utterly defies, genre conventions. Pullman’s pastiche includes a talking bear (Lewis), children attending a magical school (Rowling) and an epic battle between two massive armies on an arctic plain (Tolkien). The comparisons go on and on, but suffice it to say, the freshness here comes from the selective appropriation and clever cobbling together of story elements that originated inside the fertile imaginations of the aforementioned authors.

Early in the film, Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) witnesses the abductions of her friends and her mission—and thereby the plot itself—becomes the attempt at locating and rescuing her companions from the lair of the nefarious Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman). Along the way, Lyra encounters her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), an armored bear that can talk (voiced by the wizard from that other fantasy franchise, Ian McKellen) and airship captain Lee Scoresby (oh he of the mighty mustache, Sam Elliott). Other notable names appear here, such as: Christopher Lee, Kristin Scott Thomas and the voice talents of Ian McShane, Freddie Highmore and Kathy Bates. Rounding out the forces of good are a flying witch named Serafina (Eva Green) and nomadic pirates dubbed (goofy name alert) Gyptians. The parade of sympathetic characters that progressively accompany Lyra on her way to the arctic academy is reminiscent of the way Dorothy collects her motley crew of allies on her way to the Emerald City in L. Frank Baum’s
The Wizard of Oz.

As for Mrs. Coulter (no relation to Ann, I’m sure), she’s an icy queen resplendent in her malevolence. Very few actresses could’ve played the part of the requisite “evil queen” with the appropriate degree outward control and inner fury that Kidman possesses—she attenuates between these emotional poles with a precision quite rare in a genre replete with over-the-top villainesses. Coulter charges her Gobblers to abduct young children in a similar manner to how the Wicked Witch of the West dispatches her flying monkeys to kidnap Dorothy in
The Wizard of Oz (1939). The Gobblers have more than a passing resemblance (in function, not form) to LOTR’s Ringwraiths and Potter’s Death Eaters as evil underlings tasked with doing their overlord’s dirty work.

Director Chris Weitz does a masterful job of balancing the movie’s character scenes with the FX, which could’ve easily overwhelmed the story since the visual elements are so intrinsic to the movie’s success. Indeed, the exceedingly high quality special effects are one of the distinguishing factors between this film and every other fantasy clone that’s come along since the
LOTR trilogy. Aside from the FX, many other visual elements have conspired to create the marvelously diverse world that is Compass, not the least of which are the highly stylized and imaginative artifacts, costumes and vehicles. Although the film’s architectural aesthetic often resembles a futuristic version of Victorian England, there are many other sets and locations that have a uniquely immersive quality about them, most notably the otherworldly ice plain.

In the end, whether you subscribe to the controversial criticisms that have been leveled at the film or not,
Compass will guide you on a spectacular journey through the vast expanses of Pullman’s unique fantasy world if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief and go along for the ride. It remains to be seen if this film will earn enough money warrant the production of the next book in the series, but I suppose now is as good a time as any to assess the state of book-to-movie fantasy features. Are we starting to experience fantasy fatigue? If so, at least this effort will have done the genre proud. And you don’t need an alethiometer to determine the veracity of that statement.

Rating: 3

Enchanted (PG)

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Directed by: Kevin Lima
Starring: Amy Adams
November 2007

“Melodious and Magical, Enchanted is Spellbinding”


Everything is perfect in Andalasia, an animated fairytale land where helpful animals assist with chores, a prince can meet and marry his princess in the same afternoon and where, to quote Etta James’ At Last, “life is like a song.” But lest we forget, every Eden has its serpent and in Andalasia that serpent is the evil queen (Susan Sarandon), whose stepson, Prince Edward (James Marsden), is to marry peasant girl Giselle (Amy Adams). The queen won’t stand for this as she’ll lose the throne, and we all know how controlling villainesses hate to relinquish their authority in Disney movies.

Posing as an old woman (who looks like a witch, which would naturally set off alarms in one’s head), the queen pushes Giselle into a bottomless well. When Giselle comes to, she finds herself in our world—specifically Times Square—and the movie switches to live action. Lost and disoriented, Giselle seeks admittance back into the magical kingdom by pounding on the palace doors emblazoned on a billboard. Robert (Patrick Dempsey) heroically rescues Giselle and puts her up in his flat for the night.

The story’s fish-out-of-water element, where Giselle is introduced to the often cold and harsh realities of our world, is a large part of the film’s success. The other major contributor is the memorable musical numbers composed by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. Catchy show tunes pop up all over the film—like the “Happy Working Song,” where small animals under the spell of Giselle’s melodious voice assist her in cleaning up Robert’s apartment. Besides their entertainment value, the songs are also a lot of fun and respectfully poke fun at Disney’s bright and cheery song catalog.

The leads are fabulous…Adams is an ebullient delight as Giselle and Marsden is an absolute hoot as melodramatic Prince Edward—Marsden steals the show with his dramatic flourishes and storybook simplicity. Dempsey is a bit muted in his portrayal of the divorce attorney, but plays the perfect counterpoint to the ever-cheerful Giselle. “It’s like you escaped from a Hallmark card,” he tells her.

I enjoyed Pip, the loyal chipmunk, and the handful of scenes that blended animated characters with live action ones,
a la Roger Rabbit. I even liked the ménage trios, which skillfully keeps the audience guessing which beau Giselle will choose until the very end. What I couldn’t abide was the cheesy dragon, which shows up at movie’s end. As strange as it sounds, the scaly beast took me out of the reality of the movie.

Enchanted is a solid effort that satirizes many of the conventions employed in earlier Disney fairytales. It’s all in good fun though, and actually, that’s probably the most accurate word one could use to describe Enchanted, fun. As a sequel seems all but assured, let’s hope it contains the same magic that enchants this film.

Rating: 2 1/2

Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium (G)

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Directed by: Zach Helm
Starring: Dustin Hoffman
November 2007

“Forced Smiles with Foisted Fun for All”


Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, written and directed by Zach Helm, is the story of a magical toy store and its peculiar, titular owner. The store, squeezed between two tall buildings, looks exactly as it should—Elizabethan façade painted in gaudy colors on the outside, with a Wonka-esque toy store on the inside. The store houses a wide array of unique treasures, including: live fish mobiles, rollicking balsa wood T-Rex’ and bouncing balls that try to escape the store by jumping into customers’ shopping bags.

In preparation for retirement, Magorium (Dustin Hoffman) hires accountant Henry Weston (Jason Bateman) to set his affairs in order before handing over the store to his protégé, Molly (Natalie Portman). I always worry about revealing too much in a synopsis, but in this case, spilling the beans is unavoidable. I’ve already divulged the entire plot…sorry. With its paper-thin premise, saccharine sentimentality and an utter lack of conflict, the film offers very little else to discuss.

That’s not to say that
Magorium doesn’t have its fair share of heart-warming moments. An adorable little boy named Eric (Zach Mills, who also serves as the movie’s narrator) brings whimsy and wide-eyed amazement to the film and is, sadly, and ironically in Magorium’s case, the only character to do so. There’s an amusing little scene where Eric tries making friends with Henry; Eric writes notes on a dry erase board and lifts it up to the window separating the two. “Want to play checkers when you stop working?” Henry replies with a handwritten message on a legal pad: “I never stop working.” Eric responds with a frowny-face. There’s also a cute little stuffed monkey that reaches out to hug Henry, but the harried accountant hurriedly and heedlessly walks by, producing an “aww” of sympathy from the audience. It’s a moment.

Hoffman’s performance falls woefully short of what it should have been, especially when considering the actor’s immeasurable range. Hoffman was brilliant as the bumbling Mumbles in
Dick Tracy (1990), but here the veteran actor tries too hard to be likable and ends up making Magorium an eccentric busybody, complete with Lyle Lovett coiffure and a faux lisp so annoying it would make fingernails-on-a-chalkboard sound like the Hallelujah Chorus. Why would such a decorated actor select such a pedestrian role with such little charm and imagination? Portman tries her hardest to make Molly a complex character, but save for the subplot involving Molly’s ambivalence over wanting to be a concert pianist and feeling honor bound to take over the toy store, there’s very little for her to do…besides stew over Magorium’s departure or believe in a mystical block of wood that holds the secret to the store’s magic.

And speaking of magic; it’s one of the movie’s buzzwords. As such, it’s utterly ironic that a movie so preoccupied with magic should have so little movie magic. Any amazement the movie provides is foisted upon the spectator like a Jedi knight waving his hand and mentally suggesting, “You will gasp in astonishment at this scene. You will think this movie is magical.” It’s a shame that the creative minds behind the movie felt they had to assert the store’s magical qualities instead of simply showing them.

Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium will surely captivate pre-teens with its semblance of magic, but anyone else, especially today’s savvy teens, will see right through the movie’s veneer of colorful sets and props and realize that more fun could be had at the local arcade than in Magorium’s gimmicky emporium. This Wonka wannabe might be full of wonder, but it certainly isn’t wonderful.

Rating: 2

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (PG-13)

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Directed by: David Yates
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe
July 2007

“Dark and Dreary is the Order of the Day”


The last Harry Potter movie, The Goblet of Fire, was darker than the opening trilogy but retained much of the whimsy and magical energy that permeated the earlier movies, based upon J.K. Rowling’s mega-blockbuster fantasy series. The fifth Potter film, The Order of the Phoenix, is even darker than the previous entry. But is it too dark?

Some would argue that this is the most character-driven film in the series—brimming with revelatory moments of shadowy pasts and meaningful vignettes where honesty and vulnerability bubble to the surface in the seething cauldron of false accusations, social stigma and detrimental denial—and they would probably be right. But what the movie gains in dramatic capital it looses in slow pacing, drab sets, standard special effects, low creativity and, when compared to the other films, a veritable absence of action scenes. Since characters are crucial to the plot, it’s wholly appropriate to present a brief character study of the main players and the new challenges they face.

Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is a pariah in the film; despised and distrusted by adults and contemporaries alike, he’s seen as a kind of Chicken Little where the imminent return of the evil lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is concerned. As the film progresses Harry becomes increasingly angry,
a la Anakin Skywalker, and distances himself from his diminishing circle of friends which are little more than glorified extras here, especially Hermione (Emma Watson). To make matters worse, Voldemort makes repeated attempts at getting inside Harry’s head and the lad seems to be on trial for one Hogwarts violation or another for at least half the film. Oh, and Harry’s most ardent defender, wizard Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), all but ignores Harry in the film. Even though a plausible explanation is given for his odd behavior, the sullen headmaster seems out of sorts and out of character for most of the movie…a little disappointing.

Harry’s godfather, Sirius (Gary Oldman), fittingly, has risen up from the embers to join the Order of the Phoenix—Sirius holds out hope to the movie’s oppressive darkness. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t return the favor. Furry fan-favorite, Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), appears in the film for about ten minutes, delivers about as many lines and then exits stage right. This is unacceptable treatment for such a beloved character. Adding insult to injury is the subplot with Hagrid’s giant half-brother; the silly and superfluous scenes could have been cut from the movie with little consequence.

Token scenes are doled out to the majority of peripheral characters, like Alan Rickman’s ever-dour Professor Snape. Though Rickman’s scenes are inexcusably few, his character is party to some of the meatiest moments in the movie; like when Snape forces his way into Harry’s mind to help the lad build up defenses against Voldemort’s mental assaults…and when Harry, in the process of shoving back, learns a shocking and ironic fact from the brooding teacher’s past.

If there’s one area of the movie that works like magic, it’s new headmaster, Miss Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), a condescending snoot who’s actually a more effective antagonist than Voldemort. A good villain makes you want to take off your shoe and chuck it at the screen; Umbridge comes close to evoking that kind of unbridled hostility in spectators with her simpering smile and prim and proper schoolmarm rigidity. Hogwarts experiences its darkest days under Miss Umbridge’s tyrannical rule: again, is there a hint of felicity or optimism anywhere in the movie? Not to this muggle’s eye.

As with the other Potter films, the technical and artistic elements in
Order are impervious to criticism, but no amount of special effects or artistic embellishments can rectify a dismal screenplay. The word from avid Rowling’s readers and Hollywood insiders is that the next book, The Half-Blood Prince, is even darker than Order. That doesn’t bode well as this installment was already too dark for my liking. What happened to the levity? What happened to the innocence and excitement at discovering new worlds, peoples, creatures and cultures? What happened to walking out of a Potter movie feeling exhilarated instead of feeling like you just left a wake? Hopefully number six will shed some light on these questions. Expecto patronum!

Rating: 3

Transformers (PG-13)

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Directed by: Michael Bay
Starring: Shia LaBeouf
July 2007

“Shia Steals the Show from Shape-shifting, Sentient Machines”


Director Michael Bay’s latest big screen extravaganza, Transformers, is based on the 80’s cartoon series and comic book of the same name. Having never seen the cartoon (despite being a child of the 80’s), I really didn’t know what to expect, but was dubious about the film’s potential because of its pedestrian roots. However, Transformers far surpassed my expectations; not only was I blown away by the movie’s dazzling FX, I also was captivated by the gripping human drama which somehow manages to hold its own against the overwhelming onslaught of morphing machines.

Sam (Shia LaBeouf), the resident history nerd at his high school, is undersized for his age, stumbles over his words and couldn’t buy a date with all the gold in Ft. Knox. But Sam’s fortunes change when his dad takes him to a used car lot and a yellow Camaro selects him just like Herbie
The Love Bug (1968) selected Dean Jones in Disney’s campy classic. While out for a spin in his new car, Sam spots the hottest girl from his school walking alongside the road; the Camaro takes control of the steering wheel, opens its passenger door and presents Sam with the opportunity of a lifetime. But, as Sam soon learns, his eccentric car is more than meets the eye.

The movie’s geek quotient is pretty high, especially since it borrows heavily from the cartoon’s glossary. If you pinch your nose, you might be able to swallow names like Megatron and Optimus Prime (although Sam’s car, Bumblebee, might be pushing it), but don’t be surprised if some acid reflux works its way up into your throat when you hear nomenclature such as Autobots, Decepticons or the groan-inducing All Spark. If you can get past these elements while suspending your disbelief at least as high as you did for
Independence Day (Bay’s other alien invasion flick), you’ll probably thoroughly enjoy Transformers.

I mention
Independence Day because Transformers sets up in a similar fashion, gradually unraveling the extraterrestrial threat before blowing the roof off the theater with a pulse-pounding, earth-shattering finale. Another common factor between Bay’s films is the manner in which the different sets of characters are introduced—the everyday folk, governmental officials and members of the military—and how the story bounces back and forth between the groups until they finally intersect during the cataclysmic climax.

LaBeouf’s (
Holes) contribution to the movie’s success cannot be understated—he simply steals the show with his nervous bumbling and Average Joe charm. Other members of the eclectic ensemble are: Mikaela (Megan Fox) as Sam’s crush, Josh Duhamel (Las Vegas) as a special ops soldier, Jon Voight as the secretary of defense and John Turturro as a member of an oversight-created rogue agency called Sector 7 (i.e., throwaway subplot).

Boasting groundbreaking CGI,
Transformers will undoubtedly run away with the Best Visual Effects Oscar, even amid stiff competition from other big budget sequels like Spider-Man 3, Pirates 3 and Fantastic Four 2. Some FX highlights: scorpion-like transformers burrow under the desert sand and ambush a special ops team, and Autobots and Decepticons engage in a high-speed chase which essentially transforms the freeway into a roller derby. Also, the final confrontation between Optimus Prime and Megatron, where Sam desperately tries to evade the wrestling leviathans, is a mind-blowing scene that, like the climax of the first Matrix movie, has elevated the standard for big screen action sequences and set the bar that much higher for future filmmakers.

Transformers is the must-see movie this summer; not only because it’s wildly entertaining, but mostly because it’s something new. It’s also the finest teen angst story to come along in quite some time and should attract legions of pimple-faced patrons as well as thirty-something former fan boys seeking an exhilarating stroll down memory lane. Even though a sequel is all but assured, Bay and Co. would do well to proceed with number two only after a quality script is in place so as to avoid the ignominious fate of other big budget sequels released in recent years. After all, this first Transformers film will be a tough act to follow.

Rating: 3

Evan Almighty (PG)

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Directed by: Tom Shadyac
Starring: Steve Carell
June 2007

“A Flood of Levity with a Sprinkle of Morality”


The follow-up to the divine comedy Bruce Almighty (2003), which starred Jim Carrey and Morgan Freeman, Evan Almighty features Steve Carrell as a modern-day Noah who’s been instructed to build an ark by God—once again personified by Freeman.

Evan Baxter (Carrell) was a curious choice for lead character since he was Bruce’s rival in the earlier film. The transition from antagonist to protagonist (and anchorman to congressman) might be too much of a stretch for some viewers; such an obvious contrivance challenges the movie’s credibility right out of the gate. Carrell’s usual antics are toned down here a bit, but the role consistently defaults to the comedic rather than the dramatic and crosses the border of silliness on a fairly regular basis; like when Evan tries to keep up with his rapidly growing beard or when a veritable zoo follows him around town and even accompanies him to congressional meetings.

Among the notable cast members are: John Goodman as a shady politician, Lauren Graham as Evan’s exasperated wife and Wanda Sykes as Evan’s quick-witted secretary. Save for Carrell and Freeman, the movie’s performances are as wooden as the ark but this is mindless comedy, not Shakespeare (thank goodness; Carrell is a far cry from Olivier).

Joel Cohen’s script is considerably tamer than the brazenly irreverent
Bruce Almighty and, for better or worse, the movie will be classified as a family film. From a moral or religious standpoint, there’s absolutely nothing objectionable in the film and some of the inside gags—Evan’s alarm clock rouses him at exactly 6:14 and his new license plates read GEN 6:14, the Bible verse that commanded Noah to “Make thee an ark of gopher wood”—are quite amusing. Even though the plot is flaccid in spots, credit Cohen for taking the movie in a different, if less interesting, direction than the first film.

Evan Almighty is good, clean fun that features a diverting premise and a positive moral: you can change the world “one act of random kindness at a time.” It’s an oversimplified maxim that’s made palatable only because Freeman delivers it—after all, he, not Bruce or Evan, is the Almighty.

Rating: 2 1/2

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (PG)

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Directed by: Tim Story
Starring: Ioan Gruffudd
June 2007

“The Surfer Brings Home the Silver Medal”


What if a malevolent entity, born in the womb of deep space, roamed among the stars and instigated intergalactic upheaval by eating planets for breakfast? What if a humanoid on a threatened world made a deal with the cosmic devil to spare his planet in exchange for his eternal servitude to the sinister overlord? And what if that harbinger of destruction showed up on earth?

That, in a nutshell, is the tragic dynamic of Galactus and his henchman, the Silver Surfer. It’s also the premise of the second
Fantastic Four movie, subtitled, Rise of the Silver Surfer.

The movie opens with the media frenzy surrounding Reed Richards’, a.k.a. Mr. Fantastic (Ioan Gruffudd) and Sue Storm’s, a.k.a. the Invisible Woman (Jessica Alba), high profile wedding. Sue is beyond frustration with Reed, whose obsession with his work relegates her to making all of the wedding plans. The afternoon of the wedding finds Reed up to his elastic elbows in work as he frantically labors to bring an advanced satellite (an early detection system for rogue spatial anomalies) online. As the story would require, just such an anomaly rapidly approaches earth and trips Reed’s alarm before he can say “I do.” Riding a cosmic wave at near-light speed, the Surfer arrives at earth and crashes Reed’s wedding…of all the events taking place on the planet. Many melees erupt throughout the movie giving rise to the question, “Will the combined strength of the Fantastic Four be enough to defeat the Surfer?”

Though the sequel is darker and less frivolous than the original, both movies are equally good; though neither one is great. What works particularly well in the movie is the inherent sense of dread that surrounds the mysterious Surfer and the imposed deadline that comes with his arrival. “Wherever the Surfer goes, eight days later and the planet dies,” Reed gravely informs his team. However, since the movie chronicles our planet’s first encounter with the shinny guy, how could Reed possibly know such information…intergalactic talk radio?

Earth’s impending demise becomes a dreadful reality when the Surfer burrows massive holes deep into the earth’s mantle at various points around the globe—the tableau of one such hole inside the dried out Thames is a striking visual. The purpose of the holes is revealed when Galactus arrives at earth during the movie’s harrowing climax; the cloud-like creature’s attack on earth is yet another breathtaking sequence.

The Surfer, himself, is perhaps the movie’s finest visual effect. The scenes of the Surfer passing through buildings, flying upside down through traffic, etc., are too numerous to mention here, but the look and mystique of the liquid-chrome humanoid—further enhanced by Laurence Fishburne’s authoritative baritone—simultaneously strikes fear into our hearts and fosters respect for one of the baddest-looking villains to have come along in recent years. It’s just too bad the writers didn’t spend as much time on his character development as the FX team did on his CG rendering.

In keeping with the number of the titular team, the movie’s top four drawbacks are: 1. it’s too slow out of the starting blocks, 2. Johnny Storm/the Human Torch (Chris Evans) is so obnoxious I actually hoped the Surfer would squeeze his neck until his big, flaming head popped off, 3. Ben Grimm/The Thing (Michael Chiklis) could hold a pose in front of a brick wall and stand out more than he does in the film, and 4. Sue’s distracting, blue-ringed contacts are the only memorable element of Alba’s performance. Despite leaden acting, especially by Julian McMahon as the resurrected Dr. Doom, and the remedial dialogue that sounds as if it were lifted right out of the comic book, the movie is a fun popcorn flick that’s no better, yet no worse than the first
Fantastic film.

Some suggestions for the third installment: bring back the humor from the first film; give each of the four characters something to do along with a new, personal challenge and present the movie as a thought-provoking, issues-driven action film (using the
X-Men trilogy as a template) rather than a glorified comic book. That would be fantast… Uh, fabulous!

Rating: 2 1/2

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (PG-13)

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Directed by: Gore Verbinski
Starring: Johnny Depp
May 2007

“Scatterbrained Sequel Makes Us Grateful for ‘The End’”


In preparation for this review, I was half tempted to write, “Please refer to my review for Pirates 2.” After all, both movies were filmed at the same time and both suffer from writhing, meandering story lines packed to the gunnels with bizarre characters, insipid love triangles and as much obtuse silliness as Johnny Depp can cram into each millisecond of his onscreen time. With their numerous inherent similarities and identical ratings, it’s hard not to point this review to my earlier one, so if you’re so inclined…

Before Depp and crew sailed into our collective consciousness, pirate-themed movies had never been very successful at the box-office. In fact, the finest example the genre had produced in recent years was the debacle known at Cutthroat Island (1995), which starred Geena Davis as a swashbuckling heroine and Matthew Modine as her quick-witted sidekick. With very few exceptions, pirate movies have fallen short of anything remotely resembling high art and have been widely rejected by audiences and critics alike. But that knowledge didn’t stop Disney from rolling the dice on a movie, now trilogy, based on one of its theme park rides…which would seem to be double jeopardy since the other films based on Disney rides, Country Bears and The Haunted Mansion, were undisputed flops. The first Pirates movie was slightly above average, but each sequel has failed to live up to its predecessor (further substantiating the cloning principle of replicative fading) by moving farther away from the comical and whimsical joyride that was the original.

In some ways, I enjoyed this new Pirates film, subtitled At World’s End, a swabbie’s chin whisker more than the middle movie—it has a stronger opening act, is darker and moodier, isn’t quite as pedestrian in the script department and features action sequences that your brain can almost keep up with…almost. Although the overarching plot and purpose is a bit nebulous, some of the movie’s subplots actually make sense this time; like Capt. Jack Sparrow’s (Depp) rescue and the Council of the Nine Pirate Lords.

Unfortunately, this movie has succumbed to the same kind of free-wheeling buffoonery that plagued
Pirates 2; for supporting evidence, look no further than the inane scenes where Sparrow carries on conversations with his cadre of imaginary alter egos. What’s more, Jack and Will are still at odds with each other and allegiances continue shifting like the wind: the parlay scene on the island spit, where Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and Will (Orlando Bloom) switch sides, reminds me of picking teams at recess. Boy, have these movies regressed. Thankfully, the story’s anemic ménage trios is finally resolved, but Barbossa’s mysterious return from the dead at the end of Pirates 2 is given the barest of explanations here, but hey, this is just escapist fare so who cares. Right?

In 2006,
Pirates 2 won the Oscar for Best Achievement in Visual Effects, and Pirates 3 seems poised to nab the statuette for the second year in a row. In addition to spirited ship battles (like the show-stopping shot of the Endeavor exploding into smoldering splinters), the CGI on Bootstrap Bill is amazing, especially when the barnacle-encrusted prisoner becomes one with the wall of coral in his cell. The movie’s cinematography is also superb, particularly in such tableaus as the Chinese village, the glaciated ocean, the conglomeration of ships known as Shipwreck Island and the breathtaking, swirling maelstrom. However, the giant-sized Calypso is a tad hokey and the avant-garde crab concept is just downright strange.

Even with some new faces like Chow Yun-Fat as Chinese Captain Feng and Keith Richards as Jack’s inebriated father,
At World’s End—though a bit more stylish than number two—is little more than a jumbled mass of seaweed. If mindless entertainment is your bent, there’s a veritable cornucopia of random silliness for you to feast upon here; everyone else will regard the film as a banquet of barnacles. With its pointless plot and tired premise, Pirates has become a caricature of itself…we’ve gone from laughing along with the first movie to laughing at the last two.

So, will this be the end of
Pirates, as the subtitle would suggest, or will Disney drag the battle-worn ship out of mothballs for more high seas high jinks? In an age where dollar signs trump artistic integrity, you can bet your glass eyeball there’ll be another sequel on the horizon in the not-too-distant future. You’ve been sufficiently forewarned, Matey.

Rating: 2

Shrek the Third (PG)

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Directed by: Chris Miller, Raman Hui
Starring: Mike Myers
May 2007

“The Ogre Who Wouldn’t Be King”


There’s a scene toward the beginning of Shrek the Third where the not-so-jolly green ogre grabs a wine bottle and tosses it against the stern of a departing ship; to honor the long-standing, sea-faring tradition of christening a ship on its maiden voyage. The force of his throw, however, shatters a section the wooden hull and water immediately begins flooding the lower decks of the ship. In a matter of seconds the vessel is completely submerged, leaving nothing but bubble streams rising to the surface and stunned expressions on the faces of those gathered to see the ship off.

The scene is a microcosm of the perils facing this movie in particular and the series in general. With the arrival of the third
Shrek film, it has become painfully obvious that the ship is sinking…rapidly.

All of the familiar voices are back: Mike Myers as Shrek, Cameron Diaz as Fiona, Eddie Murphy as Donkey, Antonio Banderas as Puss in Boots, Rupert Everett as Prince Charming, John Cleese as King Harold and Julie Andrews as Queen Lillian. The latest legendary figure to be added to Shrek’s mythical mélange is King Arthur (are you ready for this…Justin Timberlake), who’s painted here as an ungainly, wussy-boy named Artie. Artie is reticent to assume the title and responsibilities of being king, a role that is being forcefully foisted upon him by the true heir to the throne, Shrek.

Does anyone else find this kind of revisionist history hard to swallow, or outright offensive? Riddled by other such discrepancies and inanities, the movie’s plot would make a nursery rhyme read like Shakespeare. Besides the aimless storyline, recycled gags, Dick and Jane dialogue and snail-like pacing, the movie fails to entertain because the once-charming premise of fairy tale potpourri has grown so tired that Rumpelstiltskin would be considered an insomniac by comparison.

It’s clear that Shrek’s producers are content to milk the cash cow for as long as they can—in other words, for as long as we keep feeding it the green. So I say, let’s boycott future
Shrek films (number four is already in the works), until the powers that be bring back the fun-filled frivolity that first made us fall in love with the magical, whimsical land Far, Far Away and its colorful characters. That may seem a bit extreme, but the alternative is to sit back and hope that Shrek the Fourth is better than Shrek the Third; a brand of wishful thinking that borders on the naive.

Some have defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result. If that statement is anywhere close to being true, the
Shrek series is already well on its way to the funny farm.

Rating: 1 1/2

Spider-Man 3 (PG-13)

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Directed by: Sam Raimi
Starring: Tobey Maguire
May 2007

“Could This Be the End of Spider-Man?”


Just as Superman has his kryptonite, comic-to-movie adaptations have their own inherent vulnerabilities. The bane of most superhero flicks is the seemingly irresistible temptation to cram an entire rogue’s gallery into one movie. The Batman films of the 90’s were notorious for packing in the villains, and the X-Men trilogy nearly collapsed under its own weight when new heroes and villains were added to each successive chapter. Armed with that knowledge, you’d think the creative forces behind the mega-blockbuster Spider-Man films would avoid such a narrative pitfall. Think again!

After loosing the initial skirmish to the belligerent behemoth dubbed Sandman, Spider-Man rhetorically questions, “Where do all these guys come from?” Good question. But a better one is, “
Why do we need all these guys?”

The previous Spidey films managed just fine with only one villain apiece; the result of such narrow focus was tight story lines with engaging plots. Here we have three antagonists: Harry Osborn/Goblin (James Franco), the aforementioned Sandman/Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) and Eddie Brock/Venom (Topher Grace).

Harry, it seems, still has feelings for M.J. (Kirsten Dunst), and does his best to steal her from Peter/Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire). Harry hasn’t gotten over his hatred of Spider-Man for killing his father, but that quickly changes when Spider-Man puts Goblin in the hospital and a pseudo-lobotomy restores Harry to the likable guy we met in the first movie. The transformation is short lived, however; one look at his father’s creepy self-portrait is all it takes to jog Harry’s memory and rekindle his burning desire to destroy Spider-Man.

Flint is on the run from cops when he falls into a sand pit (at least it wasn’t a vat of acid). The pit is actually part of a science experiment that, when activated, turns Flint into Sandman. The presumably top-secret experiment—which is located in the middle of an abandoned field and comes to life only after Flint falls into the pit—takes random happenstance to absurd limits. Other than his little daughter’s terminal illness and his fugitive status, we learn very little about the granulated criminal. Flint’s statement, “I’m not a bad person…I just have bad luck,” was clearly intended to generate sympathy from the audience, but since Flint’s character development is as porous and insubstantial as his alter ego, we really could care less about him or his luck.

Eddie is more of a nuisance than a serious threat until later in the film when the extraterrestrial Venom (whose origin is never adequately explained) takes possession of him. When it comes to strength and ability, Venom and Spidey seem evenly matched and, as such, an exclusive fight between the pair would have been much more satisfying and engrossing than the film’s climactic battle royale; the dizzying whirlwind of activity that surrounds the four combatants weakens the impact of the melee and detracts from audience enjoyment.

While on the subject,
S3’s action sequences—across the board—aren’t nearly as good as the ones showcased in the earlier films and fail to generate anything that even remotely resembles edge-of-your-seat exhilaration. Pre-release, producer Avi Arad promised that the subterranean subway conflict between Spidey and the Sandman would top the aboveground train sequence from the second movie (Premier Jan/Feb 07). In what way? Certainly not in length, intensity or creativity! The biggest problem with S3’s action scenes? They lack emotion. Nobody seems to be in any real danger; not even M.J., who for the umpteenth time is left hanging from a precipitous height—here she dangles alongside newcomer, Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard, who doubles as the new love interest for Peter and the movie’s most disposable character). The only fracas that has any originality is the final showdown between Spidey and Venom—the visually stimulating sequence is based on sound scientific principles.

Other than a few new faces and places, not much has changed since
S2: M.J. is still a struggling actress; Peter still attends college, still drives a moped, still lives in the same ramshackle apartment and still can’t get things right with M.J. This lack of progression severely hamstrings the story. Not only is the movie formulaic, it’s also pedantic; S3 backtracks through familiar territory in a manner reminiscent of the thoroughly disappointing Return of the Jedi—also the third film in a trilogy that egregiously rehashed story elements from earlier films in order to fill out the movie.

Of all the things that went wrong in
S3, and there are many, the biggest creative culprit is the tepid screenplay written by Ivan Raimi and S2 scribes, Sam Raimi and Alvin Sargent. The regression in script quality from S2 to S3 is truly staggering; not only is the dialogue hokier than normal, but the plot, for all of the reasons stated above, suffers from a debilitating form of sequelitis.

Spoiler Warning: There are two glaring defects in the script which stand out like a flashlight in a pitch-black cave; one involves revisionist history and the other employs an insidious strain of deus ex machina. Uncle Ben’s killer wasn’t the man in the car (as was originally presumed), but Flint, who allegedly fired the gun on accident. Okay! Even Peter is incredulous and furious when he learns about the “new evidence.” This not-so-minor alteration—necessary for fleshing out Flint’s background and providing Spidey with a motive for confronting Sandman—simultaneously disrupts the continuity established in the earlier films and destroys S3’s credibility.

Even worse is the storyline involving butler Bernard’s (John Paxton, who’s delivered maybe two lines in as many movies) perfectly timed admission to Harry that Harry’s father, Norman (Willem Dafoe), absolved Peter of killing him before he took his final breath. So why does the tightly guarded secret surface at this precise moment? The butler’s had nearly two movies to make such a confession. Ah, could it be that the script requires the convenient disclosure at this exact moment so that Harry can have a change of heart and aid Spidey in fending off Sandman and Venom? The answer to that question can be found in Spider-Man’s recruitment speech to Harry, “I can’t take them both.” Of course he can…he’s Spider-Man! Since when did Spidey become so spineless? Since when did Raimi use plot contrivances to service his scripts?

I seldom get nauseous while watching a movie (unless I’ve put too much butter on my popcorn), but the faux breaking news segments during the climactic battle work like mental ipecac. The melodramatic exclusives of Spidey in danger (i.e., “Could this be the end of Spider-Man?”) are so mind-numbingly inane they nearly defy description. Like the obnoxious beeping of an alarm clock in the midst of a pleasant dream, these scenes rudely jolt spectators out of the movie’s comfortable, highly styled fantasy world and into present reality…which they paid ten bucks to escape. The resultant disorientation, intensified here by the use of real-life news reporters, makes for a very unpleasant viewing experience. These scenes are feeble attempts at paying tribute to Spider-Man’s earlier incarnations in comic book and cartoon form; feeble because they come off as a cutesy gimmick instead of a sincere homage.

The only subplot that lives up to its potential is Peter’s dark descent into the depths of his own ego, instigated by his newfound celebrity among the general public and his new ability-enhancing, personality-altering black outfit which is composed of Venom’s sinister tendrils. The old Proverb cautions that “Pride goes before the fall.” Peter quickly eschews such instruction when adulation from his fans takes him on a heady trip at a parade thrown in his honor. “They love me,” he gleefully comments to himself. But soon enough, his arrogance and self-absorption alienates his friends and family, and by the time Peter realizes the severity of the wicked acts he’s committed and the manner in which Venom has poisoned everyone and everything in his life, it’s nearly too late. These scenes, though far too few, are powerfully poignant and serve as the emotional backbone for a story in desperate need of one.

Still, the movie does have some redeeming qualities: Bruce Campbell lends the film some much needed levity in his performance as the maitre d’ at the exclusive restaurant where Peter clumsily botches his proposal to MJ. Campbell, who’s appeared in every
Spider-Man film to date, is uproariously funny in the scene. J.K. Simmons reprises his role as the choleric newspaper editor, J. Jonah Jameson, but the whole anger management angle stifles the character’s fun and effectiveness. If a Spider-Man 4 is in the offing, let’s hope Jameson reverts back to his irascible, yet more lovable, self.

In the end,
Spider-Man 3 tries to accomplish too much and, like our hero, buckles under the weight of its own ambition. The acting and directing are unassailable, but the story gets bogged down by too many subplots; the writers should have streamlined the narrative by jettisoning one or two of the villains. I won’t argue that Spider-Man 3, though a little too dark at times, is a great popcorn movie; but the price of popcorn is higher these days and so are my expectations for sequels to successful series. So, will there be a Spider-Man 4? If it takes after the first two movies, I say, bring it on. If not, let’s just cut our losses and deem Spider-Man a landmark trilogy with a lackluster finale.

Rating: 2 1/2

Night at the Museum (PG)

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Directed by: Shawn Levy
Starring: Ben Stiller
December 2006

“One of Our T-Rex’ is Missing”


All too frequently these days, movies are ruined by comprehensive trailers. Serving as a visual Cliff Notes version of the film, said trailers spell out the plot and leave little to the imagination…and little reason to shell out a ten spot to see the picture. Of the recent movie-spoiling trailers, the Ben Stiller vehicle, Night at the Museum, is the worst offender of all, revealing nearly every major plot point in the preview. As egregious as that is, it’s an even greater tragedy that the movie fails to build on what, at first glance, appeared to be a highly entertaining, crowd-pleasing comedy/adventure.

The movie’s premise is elementary, much like the plot: Divorced dad, Larry (Stiller), keeps moving laterally from one dead-end job to another and has more money-making schemes than Ralph Kramden. Despite his best efforts to be a hero to his preteen son, Nikki (Jake Cherry) he always comes off looking like a schmuck. Desperate for employment, Larry takes a night security position at the Museum of Natural History in NYC to appease his landlord and ex-wife (
24’s Kim Raver). In an unpopular move made by management, Larry is replacing three dotting guards: Cecil (Dick Van Dyke), Gus (Mickey Rooney), and Reginald (Bill Cobbs). Before cleaning out his locker, Cecil gives Larry this piece of advice, “Don’t let anything in or out!”

Larry’s first night on the job is uneventful until he notices the vacated T-Rex dais. A tour around the labyrinthine hallways confirms his worst fears…everything in the museum is alive! The chaos that ensues is tantamount to
Jumanji in a museum. I mention Jumanji here because of its thematic and structural similarities to Night at the Museum and because its star, Robin Williams, appears here as Theodore Roosevelt, the person Larry turns to for wisdom and assistance when all Valhalla breaks loose.

After five minutes of mischievous monkeys, aggressive lions, defiant pygmies, talking sculptures and belligerent Huns, I had climaxed on the menagerie mayhem conceit and was ready to see something, anything else. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie, save one twist near the end, focuses solely on the enchanted museum and the anarchy that exists from midnight to dawn…at which time everything in the museum magically “resets.”

Character development is exceedingly tenuous and the story written by Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon (based on the book by Milan Trenc), is so pedestrian that it sabotages any possibility for enjoyment. Stiller’s shtick is growing more tedious by the movie and Williams fails to salvage the film with his heartfelt turn as Roosevelt; perhaps because the erstwhile prez makes too many sermonizing speeches and has voyeuristic tendencies where Sacajawea (Mizuo Peck) is concerned.

As the movie closes, Larry supervises a wild party in the main lobby; the museum denizens have finally learned how to peacefully co-exist. Such movie-ending revelry worked like a charm in
Shrek, but here the celebration seems contrived and more than just a little bizarre. It’s a shame that the word bizarre has to be applied to a movie that seemed primed to become the newest sensation to sweep the comedy genre. Guess it just goes to show that you can’t judge a book by its cover…or a movie by its trailer.

At one point, while dealing with escaped animals and blood-thirsty natives, Larry remarks, “This is so not worth $11.50 an hour.” Neither is forking out $9.50 for two hours of this!

Rating: 2

Eragon (PG)

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Directed by: Stefen Fangmeier
Starring: Ed Speleers
December 2006

“Medieval Mediocrity Has a New Name”


The best word one could use to describe Eragon, the new fantasy film based on the novel of the same name by Christopher Paolini, is “conventions.” Not sci-fi conventions, mind you, but story conventions. The entire movie is laden with leaden contrivances and borrows heavily from Star Wars (farm boy seeks adventure and is mentored by a seasoned sage), Batman Begins (training sessions), The Beastmaster (conversing with animals), Dragonheart (dragon) and, of course, The Lord of the Rings trilogy (too many to list here).

However, even though
Eragon sounds too similar to LOTR’s Aragorn, the movie has carved out its own unique niche within the fantasy genre and comes complete with its own geeky glossary: Alagaesia (mythical realm), the Varden (aboriginal warriors lead by Djimon Hounsou), Urgals (wildmen) and the Ra’zac (orcs composed of worms), to name just a few.

Eragon (Edward Speleers), a callow country peasant, stumbles upon a watermelon-shaped dragon egg in the forest. Once hatched, the dragon grows at an alarming rate and, upon reaching adulthood, uses its telepathic powers to communicate with Eragon (the dragon, Saphira, is voiced by Rachel Weisz). Former Dragon Rider, Brom (Jeremy Irons), takes Eragon under his wing and trains the youth in combat and dragon piloting. After earning his stripes, Eragon struggles to stay one step ahead of the Ra’zac on his mission to rescue Princess Arya (Sienna Guillory). Along the way, the lad is also pursued by the scar-faced Durza (Robert Carlyle), who serves as the creepy henchman for the sinister overlord, King Galbatorix (John Malkovich).

Speleers tries his hardest to fulfill the movie’s need for a Luke Skywalker archetype, but he doesn’t show much range at this early juncture in his acting career. Irons, who’s no stranger to the genre, slips into the Obi Wan role with ease, but, unfortunately, is as wooden as his quarterstaff. Brom mirthlessly trains the teen with an austere earnestness that would break his face should he ever smile…which he doesn’t. Irons’
The Man with the Iron Mask co-star, Malkovich, is underserved as the villain and comes off a bit melodramatic, what with his legato speech and scowling affectation.

Though surprisingly dark at times (for a PG-rated family film),
Eragon is mildly diverting, yet still falls far short of the epic fantasy benchmark. As with most fantasy novels, there are other books in the series that could become sequels if this first film brings in enough denarii’s. Who knows, if Eragon spawns a series of films, its costumes might be donned by fans at sci-fi/fantasy gatherings. That would be so conventional!

Rating: 2 1/2

Charlotte’s Web (G)

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Directed by: Gary Winick
Starring: Dakota Fanning
December 2006

“Delightful Tale Affirms the Miracle of Friendship”


According to Greek mythology, King Midas could transform anything into gold simply by touching it. Precocious twelve-year old actress, Dakota Fanning can do the same with movies. Don’t believe it? Name one Fanning film that was a flop. It certainly isn’t her latest project, the wistfully dreamy live-action version of E.B. White’s classic children’s book, Charlotte’s Web.

In the movie Fanning plays Fern, a prepubescent powerhouse whose deep personal convictions drives her to defend a runty pig from being slaughtered. Raising the pig on her own, Fern names the undersized porker Wilbur (voiced with the perfect degree of childlike innocence by
Minority Report’s Dominic Scott Kay). Fern and Wilbur are inseparable during the long, lazy summer months, but with the onset of fall, Fern is forced to sell the pig to the neighbors after an ill-fated attempt to conceal the pig in her school desk lands her in trouble with teacher and parents.

The neighbor’s barn is filled with talking animals whose personalities are as diverse and colorful as a rainbow. Separated from Fern, Wilbur tries making friends with his stall mates; the leader of three aimless sheep (John Cleese), two quarreling geese (Oprah Winfrey and Cedric the Entertainer), a pair of gossipy cows (Kathy Bates and Reba McEntire), two cowardly crows (Thomas Hayden Church and Andre Benjamin, who provide intermittent comic relief a la Skrit in
Ice Age), a skittish horse (Robert Redford) and a selfish, hoarding rat named Templeton (Steve Buscemi), but none of the animals seem overly eager to make Wilbur’s acquaintance. In the throes of loneliness, Wilbur finally finds a friend; gracefully descending from a silken thread, the wise and compassionate arachnid, Charlotte, introduces herself to the pig. When the other animals taunt Wilbur, calling him a “future football,” Charlotte promises the innocent spring pig that he’ll live long enough to see winter’s first snow. How Charlotte and the other animals accomplish that feat is, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story.

I’m ashamed to admit that I never read
Charlotte’s Web as a youth and only remember snippets of the animated film released in 1973. Expecting something far more pedestrian, I was pleasantly surprised by a genuinely human story that reinforces the immutable virtues of friendship, courage and selflessness.

Fanning’s contribution to the film cannot be overstated, but equally vital are the pitch-perfect vocal deliveries by the entire cast, with highlights provided by Kay, Buscemi and Roberts. Roberts brings elegance and compassion to, arguably, the most loathed creature on the planet; Charlotte’s appeal is further enhanced by the CGI artists who make Charlotte’s face appear more sympathetic and less sinister than a real-world spider. Though Wilbur is the central character, the story
is called Charlotte’s Web, and a large part of the movie’s success is due to Roberts’ affectionately soothing vocal performance that puts the spot in spot-on.

Charlotte’s Web is some movie; a delightful escape to a younger, simpler age, when summers were eternal and having adventures in a nearby wood was a full-time job. Director Gary Winick has paid faithful tribute to E.B. White’s book, while also delivering one fine piece of cinema. From the casting to the acting and from the talent in front of the camera to the wizards frantically working behind the scenes (especially on the breathtaking web-weaving sequences), every element of Charlotte’s Web is painstakingly and lovingly crafted...passion for the project and reverence for the source material is evident in every frame. This is one humble pig that deserves to take a bow.

Rating: 3

The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause (G)

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Directed by: Michael Lembeck
Starring: Tim Allen
November 2006

“Third Time Isn’t the Charm for This Freezer Burned Sequel”


I didn’t much care for The Santa Clause, starring Tim Allen, and skipped the sequel on purpose. I was willing to give this new film, entitled The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause, a fair shake, mostly because of Martin Short’s inclusion in the cast. Going in with a reasonably open mind, I was sorely disappointed in a comedy that not only lacked humor, but also featured an insufferably childish storyline.

As the movie opens, we learn that Scott Calvin/Santa’s (Allen) wife, Carol Calvin/Mrs. Clause (Elizabeth Mitchell), is pregnant. Carol wants her family by her side during the delivery, but the Clause’s can’t exactly reveal their true identities or the secret location of the North Pole. Someone (probably that chunky Spencer Breslin kid who seems to find his way into every Tim Allen movie these days) comes up with the idea of passing off the North Pole as a Canadian village simply by changing the signage and closing off top-secret areas. The Sandman (Michael Dorn) puts Santa’s in-laws, Bud (Alan Arkin) and Sylvia (Ann-Margret), to sleep and Santa ferries them to “Canada” in his renowned sleigh.

Meanwhile, Jack Frost (Short) is brought before the Council of Legendary Figures and is sentenced to manual labor in Santa’s workshop for his crimes (not legendary for their wisdom, it would seem): predictably, Frost wastes no time in sabotaging the factory. Frost’s end game is to steal Santa’s special snow globe and trick him into saying, “I wish I wasn’t Santa,” which is the extent of the Escape Clause. After accomplishing his task, Frost grabs Santa’s coat and becomes the new Santa. Before you can say “Blitzen” Frost converts the North Pole into a Vegas-style resort where myriad vacationers swarm to shops, shows and restaurants, fighting over merchandise and steamrolling anyone who gets in their way. Scott, the deposed Santa, must beat Frost at his own game to retain the mantle of Santa and restore Christmas to its former glory.

This was the point in the film where I actually felt like it had the potential to go somewhere, but almost before the problem is presented, it’s elegantly resolved by a plan the audience can see coming a mile away: Scott’s telegraphed solution is packaged, wrapped and tied up with a pretty little bow. How convenient. How contrived.

As poor as the script is, the movie’s biggest tragedy is how such a decorated cast could be relegated to acting in such pedestrian fare. However, if there’s one aspect of the movie that shines like Rudolph’s nose, it’s the highly creative, finely-detailed set pieces that festoon the various incarnations of the North Pole. In many ways, the sets are reminiscent of those crafted for
Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, sans Seuss’ skewed visual style.

Disney forbid there should be a
Santa Clause 4, but if another sequel should slide down the Hollywood chimney in the near future, one can only hope that the script shows a marked improvement over the one presented here—that would be the best gift of all.

Rating: 1 1/2

Lady in the Water (PG-13)

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Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Paul Giamatti
July 2006

“Shyamalan’s Scary Tale Succeeds by Taking Risks”


The word “narf” effortlessly plopped out of director M. Night Shyamalan’s mouth one evening as he was telling his children a bedtime story. That homespun fairytale soon became the creative fodder for Shyamalan’s latest thrill-fest, Lady in the Water. From the start, Shyamalan made it clear that the movie—an unconventional love story filled with mythological creatures—would be a radical departure from his other films.

The opening narration, conveyed in a series of petroglyphs, provides the particulars of the movie’s myth: Once every eon, an ancient race of humans send an envoy from their water world to meet with their surface-dwelling brethren in an attempt to ignite a great awakening among humans. A water nymph (narf) must find the “vessel”—a person of unique vision—that will usher in the era of peace. Despite repeated attempts throughout history, every narf ambassador has failed in her peace-fostering mission because “man doesn’t listen very well.”

As the story opens, we’re introduced to Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), a tortured soul who manages an apartment complex in Philly. Cleveland’s mundane existence as handyman, exterminator and peacekeeper brings him into contact with many of the building’s colorful tenants, including the Hispanic couple and their five daughters, the Asian college student and her controlling mother, the Indian writer (Shyamalan) and his nagging sister, the eccentric jock who only exercises the right side of his body, the African American father who excels at crossword puzzles and his insightful son, the quartet of freethinking beer buddies and the newest tenant, a haughty movie critic.

It takes a while for Shyamalan to establish all of his characters and their relationships to each other, but when Story the narf (Bryce Dallas Howard) surfaces in Cleveland’s pool, the plot kicks into high gear and a first-rate mystery begins to unfold. Story quickly identifies the “vessel,” but determining the supporting players—the guild, the guardian and the symbolist—proves more problematic. Cleveland and his tenants, now bound by a common purpose, must protect Story from an aggressive, wolf-like creature called a skrunt until the giant eagle swoops down and carries her to freedom.

It all sounds a bit hokey on paper, but Shyamalan does a masterful job of balancing character and plot with the fantastical. In an effort to mitigate the moments of stark terror (which are far fewer and less severe here than in his other movies), Shyamalan has employed more humor this time, which is just a natural byproduct of the multi-layered and multi-cultural characters that populate his story. One of the ongoing sources of amusement is the Asian mother’s reticence to share the narf’s origin tale with Cleveland. At one point, Cleveland must act like a child and have milk and cookies on the woman’s couch in order to receive a short lesson in narf mythology. The arrogant critic also provides unexpected comic relief; his jaded commentary on romance movies and his miscalculation of the danger he’s in at the movie’s climax is highly entertaining.

There’s no doubt that Shyamalan can select stars (like Willis and Gibson) for his projects, but here he’s handpicked an amazing cast, each of whom shines in his or her own way and serves a different function in the director’s visionary yarn. Howard’s fair complexion and ethereal visage lends itself perfectly to the otherworldly Story. The fact that Story doesn’t know a lot about what’s going on makes the movie that much more riveting and satisfying. Giamatti works magic in the title role; his stuttering everyman is extremely likable and accessible—there’s something in his timbre and delivery that reminds me of a younger Richard Dreyfuss. As a reluctant leader, carrying around a Santa-sized sack of guilt from his wife’s death, Cleveland finds a measure of heroism within himself when his paternal instinct kicks in and drives him to protect Story at all costs. Cleveland is captivating throughout and is an excellent character study.

Some, undoubtedly, will find Shyamalan’s avant-garde resolution unpalatable; but you can hardly fault him for breaking with the “big twist ending” motif that’s marked all of his other films. Here, he tries something different, and, for better or worse, I applaud his efforts. Though
Lady in the Water is far inferior to The Sixth Sense, it’s the most human Shyamalan tale to date—by assembling an excellent ensemble of intriguing characters, the auteur has delivered one of the most unique and refreshing movies to come along in quite some time. So, whether or not you buy into narfs and skrunts, know that Lady in the Water has inaugurated a new film genre…high-art fairytale.

Rating: 3

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (PG-13)

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Directed by: Gore Verbinski
Starring: Johnny Depp
July 2006

“Depp and Crew Are Dead in the Water”


What happened? The first Pirates of the Caribbean movie was a rousing crowd-pleaser that featured one of the most memorable characters to grace the silver screen in quite some time, Johnny Depp’s swaggering lush, Captain Jack Sparrow. An unqualified success on every level, Pirates was a feel-good romp filled with red coats, nefarious pirates, stolen treasure and a skeleton crew, literally. Aside from Depp’s spellbinding performance and the witty dialogue assigned to him, what made Pirates sail was relationships: Jack and Will forging a tenuous friendship, Will and Elizabeth falling in love, Jack and Barbossa squaring off during the movie’s harrowing climax, etc.

In the sequel, entitled
Dead Man’s Chest, these relationships are quickly discarded to service a plot that sees Jack and Will at each other’s throats and Elizabeth smooching Jack just a short time after her interrupted wedding—before they can say “I do,” Elizabeth and Will are dragged away in irons and slapped with the charge of treason for aiding Jack in the previous film. In order to receive a pardon, the couple must steal a special key from Jack. Jack, however, has troubles of his own as he’s been slipped the black spot and is desperately trying to avoid a sea-bound leviathan called a Kraken.

Along the way, they encounter many familiar faces from the past as well as the new baddie, Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), the squid-faced master of the underworld who holds absolute sway over his barnacle-encrusted crew. Onboard Jones’ magical ship, the Flying Dutchman, Will encounters his father, Bootstrap Bill; Will soon learns, much to his dismay, that a rescue attempt is impossible as his father has lost a wager and will spend the rest of his existence in servitude to Jones. In addition to a stealthy submarine mode, the Flying Dutchman can also summon the Kraken, which surfaces about every half hour just to keep things interesting. With the Kraken’s maw resembling a giant sphincter, the movie could be renamed
Pirates of the Caribbean: Attack of the Butt Kraken…an adequate title for a grossly inadequate sequel.

Whereas the first
Pirates movie was clever and amusing, the sequel is silly and confusing. Trying to make heads or tails of the writhing, often nonsensical plot is tantamount to understanding the dice game played by Jones’ crew. I have to give the writers credit for taking risks—Dead Man’s Chest certainly isn’t boring, though it does run at least a half hour too long. Unfortunately, despite their best efforts to avoid sequelitis, the writers have presented a story that, not unlike a sailor’s matted and tangled beard, is a disheveled mess. Besides the tenuous storyline, some of the movie’s action scenes are just downright ridiculous; like the dizzying sword fight on the runaway water wheel or the entire sequence involving Jack’s flight from the natives, which borrows heavily from Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi.

Silly scenes notwithstanding, the greatest tragedy here is that Captain Jack isn’t even remotely funny, and what’s more, isn’t even likable. His one-liners plummet like anchors, not because they’re poorly written, but because the character left his charm back at Port Royal. Somewhere between movies, either the writers or Depp himself lost Jack’s voice. Here he comes off more as a self-centered, cut-throat pirate and less like the irreverently insouciant debonair we fell in love with in the first movie.

After a dizzying two and a half hours, the movie ends on a low note; Captain Jack finally faces the Kraken and a dark cloud of uncertainty hovers over Will and Elizabeth’s relationship…the whole kiss thing. The “supposed” major twist ending is possibly the finest example of
deus ex machina I’ve ever seen—and that’s no compliment. The arrival of the surprise visitor from the past is clearly intended to put an exclamation point on the film’s final moments, but instead, the strategy backfires and leaves the audience in a state of confusion—it’s a contrived cliffhanger that clumsily creates another loose end.

As the old pirate’s adage warns, “Dead men tell no tales;” unfortunately, the living ones didn’t have much to say here either. It’s been reported that parts two and three were filmed at the same time—to say that I’m dubious about the quality and potential of the third chapter would be colossal understatement. We’ll see if Depp and crew can right the boat. As for
Dead Man’s Chest, it’s an aimless, listless and witless story that’s anything but shipshape.

Rating: 2

Superman Returns (PG-13)

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Directed by: Bryan Singer
Starring: Brandon Routh
June 2006

“Long Overdue, ‘Returns’ is Overly Long and Overstated”


It could have been great!

That was the unsettling and unshakeable thought that kept echoing in my mind as I exited the theater after viewing
Superman Returns. This was the movie I was most excited to see this summer…my prediction for the 2006 box office champ. While the later remains to be seen, the movie is significantly less than I had hoped for; a krypton-infused disappointment that neither hero-friendly director, Bryan Singer, nor newly minted pretty-boy, Brandon Routh, could salvage. Weighing in at an interminable two hours and thirty-four minutes, Superman Returns is a ponderous, somnambulating, seemingly alternate (Elseworlds) Man of Steel chronicle, which frequently parts ways with the continuity established in the previous film series, much to its detriment.

Last seen nineteen years ago in the debacle known as
Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, Superman, one of the most beloved and enduring comic book icons, has finally returned to the big screen after eight attempts to revive the story with a veritable army of A-list directors and actors attached to the various rejected projects. Art imitates life as the story opens with Superman’s (Routh) second coming to earth after a five year trek to his annihilated home planet, Krypton. Things have changed: the world has adjusted to life without Superman. People have changed as well: embittered by Superman’s unannounced departure and extended absence, Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has written a scathing, Pulitzer Prize-winning article entitled, “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” As Clark Kent chews on that unsavory morsel, he also discovers Lois is a mother and that the father, presumably, is Richard White (James Marsden of X-Men fame), nephew of redoubtable Daily Planet editor, Perry White (a severely underserved Frank Langella).

It doesn’t take long for Superman to leap back into action…Lois is onboard a malfunctioning jet that is rapidly plummeting toward Metropolis; unbuckled from her seat, she’s tossed around for most of the sequence and should be dead several times over, but the laws of physics and gravity, apparently, are different in Superman movies. Superman has super strength, but not super intelligence; this is evidenced in his futile attempt to slow the jet’s screaming descent by pulling back on one of the wings…the wing rips right off with him attached and he has to catch up to the plane. Learning from his mistake, Superman gets up under the nose of the craft and pushes with all of his preponderant might; stopping the plane just a few feet above ground, he gently brings the fuselage to rest upon the infield of a baseball stadium. The awestruck crowd wildly applauds his heroics…Superman has returned! The scene is a tad cheesy, but is well-executed and sets the stage for the rest of the movie…which brings us to Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey).

I have a great deal of respect for Gene Hackman as an actor, but I never felt he struck the right cord with Lex in the earlier Superman movies…Lex’s brilliance was questionable, at best, and the character simply wasn’t menacing enough. Spacey wholly inhabits the nefarious billionaire and approaches the lofty bar for insidious villains set by Jack Nicholson, whose tour de force performance as the Joker
made the 1989 Batman movie. In the same respect, Spacey, who rightfully receives top billing here, makes Superman Returns fly. Spacey’s Lex is well-dressed, well-educated and is surprisingly understated in most instances; he tiptoes along the edge of insanity, but never quite crosses the line. It’s amusing to observe Lex’ survival instinct kick in any time something threatens to go south: watch him in the model room before the power goes out.

Spacey’s contribution to the film cannot be understated or underestimated. If his performance could be distilled into a credit card commercial, it would say: “
Superman Returns tickets: $10. Lex Luthor’s wig: $90. Lex’ witty banter with ditzy assistant, Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey)…priceless!” You can tell the writers had a ball crafting dialogue for him; Lex has the best lines in the movie. “Didn’t your father ever teach you to LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAP?” Lex yells as he kicks the snot out of our severely weakened hero—krypton runs in veins through the crystalline surface of Lex’ New Krypton, formed by a stolen crystal from Superman’s lair.

Lex’ scheme to create new continents, and thereby kill billions of people, is a bit far-fetched…yes land is a valuable commodity, but as Lex himself states, the crystalline fortress he creates lacks warmth and looks alien. Who would want to live there? Would there be a Luthor’s Supermarket nearby? How would people walk or drive over the rugged surface? The demise of New Krypton (Superman thrusts it into space) reveals another nitpick…when Superman lifts the crumbling island, he’s out in the middle of the ocean, but when he falls back to earth, he lands in Metropolis’ version of Central Park.

If it hadn’t been for such super-sized plot holes, the unsatisfactory non-resolution of the movie’s tepid love triangle and a butt-numbing, half-hour dénouement, the movie might have been resplendent instead of merely decent. Though most of the movie plays like a highlight reel of the earlier films, it’s, ironically, Superman himself that is the film’s biggest liability. To be sure, Routh’s performance pays homage to the more endearing nuances of Reeves’ Superman while adding a modern twist, but some of Singer’s choices for this Man of Steel are questionable and controversial. Superman’s homoerotic appearance aside, Singer’s Kal-El is a voyeur who eavesdrops on Lois’ family. Interestingly, though Superman can hear millions of distinct voices from space, he has diminished auditory capacity when listening through the walls of Lois’ house.

One of the movie’s “big” scenes is where Superman catches the Daily Planet globe, which has fallen from the top of a skyscraper. Superman actually struggles with the globe before depositing it on a nearby car. Reeves’ Superman would have replaced the globe and soldered it with his ocular laser beams in three seconds flat. Though admittedly cornier at times, I miss the old Superman…he, at least, had some panache. The new Superman seems more concerned with Lois than anyone else…he flies out to rescue her from a flooding boat while abandoning the imperiled citizens of Metropolis—surely his services are still required in a city reeling from a seismic event.

As I involuntarily fidgeted in my theater seat, I began to wonder why I wasn’t enjoying the movie more. After all, the film is masterfully directed, well-acted and is a visual marvel. After some reflection, I’ve come to an inescapable conclusion…Singer has too much admiration for the source material. Singer tries too hard to impress; his painstaking efforts to create a signature film actually prevent the movie from achieving its maximum potential. His direction can’t be faulted, but he should have pared down the script…Singer crams two movie’s worth of material into one, and, for a film of this ilk, there are too many drawn-out conversations and too few all-out action scenes.

However, there are some great moments in the film, not the least of which is the scene featuring stock footage of Marlon Brando as Superman’s father, Jor-El and John Ottman’s rousing score that includes many of John William’s iconic themes—both of these memorable elements pay fitting tribute to Richard Donner’s landmark 1978 film.

In the final analysis,
Superman Returns would have been far better if the ménage trios concept had been jettisoned, the Superboy storyline had been aborted and the death of Superman subplot had been scrapped. The movie would have been much stronger if the last twenty minutes had been excised…I really didn’t need to hear Superman’s tacky line, “I’m always around,” one more time. Singer’s Superman is a solid hit—a ground rule double—but is nowhere close to being a home run. No one can question that Superman Returns is good, but the realization that continues to vex me is…it could have been great!

Rating: 2 1/2

Click (PG-13)

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Directed by: Frank Coraci
Starring: Adam Sandler
June 2006

“Not Even Remotely Entertaining”


The word tripe, as defined by Merriam Webster, is: something poor, worthless, or offensive. This definition more than adequately describes Adam Sandler’s Click. Finding even one redeeming quality in the movie would make hunting for a needle in a haystack an enjoyable pastime. Many of the movie’s themes and gags are abhorrent (i.e., the family dog repeatedly humping a large stuffed duck), and potty humor runs rampant throughout this severely modernized and significantly dumbed-down variation on Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol. Click, much to its detriment, suffers from the same brand of lowbrow idiocy that seems to plague the majority of Sandler’s films.

The story focuses on one man’s struggle to juggle the various aspects of his life; family, work, recreation, hobbies, etc. Michael Newman (Sandler) just can’t seem to get it right; the more he tries to organize his life, the more he falls behind and the angrier he becomes. But everything changes the day he falls asleep on a demo bed in a Bed, Bath & Beyond store. Waking up, Michael sees a door marked “Way Beyond.” Opening the door, Michael enters a gigantic warehouse filled with crates, a la
Raiders of the Lost Ark, and meets eccentric scientist, Morty (Christopher Walken). Morty has the solution to Michael’s chronic busyness; a remote control that can control Michael’s life…remotely.

At first, Michael has so much fun with the remote control—he pauses a conversation with his boss (David Hasselhoff) and gives the man a migraine by slapping him silly, adjusts the color to make himself look like the Hulk and fast-forwards through whole arguments with his wife—that he fails to see its detriments. As time continues flying by and the remote’s preference mode skips ahead to major events in his life, Michael realizes he’s missing out on meaningful moments with those he holds most dear.

Though I can appreciate the film’s
carpe diem sentiment, I just can’t abide Michael’s selfish preoccupation and obnoxious behavior; both character flaws are off-putting and significantly undermine Michael’s status as protagonist. While the movie’s moral is universally relevant, the story’s execution is ill-conceived and overly pedestrian. Still, the greatest narrative crime committed in the remedial screenplay, written by Steve Koren and Mark O’Keefe, is the utilization of the notorious “it was only a dream” twist…we can forgive Dickens for using it, but no such grace can be extended here.

Click passes up on a prime opportunity to tell a truly poignant tale and also squanders quality supporting performances by Kate Beckinsale, Sean Astin and Henry Winkler. Some will consider Click quality entertainment, but for me, I’d rather change the channel.

Rating: 1 1/2

X-Men: The Last Stand (PG-13)

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Directed by: Brett Ratner
Starring: Patrick Stewart
May 2006

“Dark, Tragic, yet Satisfying ClimaX”


Evolution. It’s what happens with each new X-Men movie. With Bryan Singer at the helm, the first two X-movies told the origin tales of many of the major mutants while previewing the brewing war between humans and mutants. But when Singer exited stage left in mid-production to direct Superman Returns, the prevailing questions became: 1.) Who will complete the third installment, and 2.) Will the trilogy’s final chapter forever be tarnished by a different vision? Enter Brett Ratner (Rush Hour), who, in addition to crafting a big budget sequel for a series adored by millions of fans, had the unenviable challenge of living up to the impossibly lofty expectations of those fans, while simultaneously enduring the scrutiny of a largely-dubious media. At times, I’m sure Ratner could identify with Wolverine when Magneto levitates the lupine hero and manipulates his adamantium skeleton to produce unthinkable pain.

Each
X-Men movie sees the inclusion of new mutants—good and bad—into the ever-expanding roster of mutantkind, and this time around, the fresh faces belong to Beast (Kelsey Grammer) and Angel (Ben Foster) on the good side and Juggernaut (Vinnie Jones) and Callisto (Dania Ramirez) on the bad side. A new mutant classification system is introduced in the movie: Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) are Class 4 mutants; Jean Gray (Famke Jansen) is the only Class 5 mutant Prof. X has ever encountered.

Jean’s part in the story is the most tragic: last seen helping Prof. X and the other mutants lift off in their stealth jet while being swallowed by Alkali Lake, Jean reemerges as a being of frightening power called Dark Phoenix. Jean, we now learn, has a dark side that Prof. X has always kept locked away for her own good, but Magneto feels she’s being held back from achieving her highest potential and seeks to recruit Phoenix to join his Brotherhood of Mutants. The saying, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” is painfully illustrated by Phoenix, whose heinous acts will surely shock some viewers—this isn’t the soft-spoken, nurturing heroine we’ve come to know in the earlier films.

On another front, scientists at Worthington Labs (situated atop Alcatraz Island) have discovered an antibody that can “cure” mutants by transforming them into normal humans. The impending war between humans and mutants—as foreshadowed in
X2—heats up to a full boil as battle lines are drawn and troops are marshaled on both sides. Even as less-radicalized mutants line up to receive the cure, Magneto rallies his throng of minions with an impassioned speech, “They wish to cure us, but I say we are the cure!”

Rogue’s (Anna Paquin) ambivalence concerning the cure is the most powerful stanza in the film. Her mutant power (she can suck the life force out of another living being with a simple touch), though useful in combat, has a terrible drawback—since she can’t make physical contact with anyone, she will forever be alone. Rogue’s desperate act is a mirror reflecting our own insecurities and basic human needs—her desire to be touched, held and comforted is a cry for love that resonates with universal salience.

Fan favorite, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), faces a new challenge this time around…the burden of leadership. The transformation from Lone Wolf to Leader of the Pack is an arduous one; especially when his animal impulses and natural instincts to take care of number one come into direct conflict with the increasing demand for teamwork. The lesson he learns in the opening sequence inside the Danger Room (the holodeck-like training room that die-hard fans have been clamoring to see) sets up one of the movie’s most memorable scenes in the climax.

As in the two earlier films, the acting is nothing short of stellar, and the standout performance here is Kelsey Grammer as Hank McCoy/Beast. Grammer wholly inhabits Beast and endues the furry blue mutant with the sagacity and refinement befitting a dignitary—his performance is thoroughly enjoyable.

If the movie has a down side, it’s the lack of attention given to the new mutants. Though Juggernaut’s simple sentences match the mental capacity of the character, Angel, who figured to be a prominent player judging from the trailer and marketing campaign, is only given a half dozen lines. As I said in my review for
X2, these films “are overstuffed with good guys.” That statement is even more apropos of X3; most of the new mutants are of the disposable variety and have scant onscreen time.

However, if Ratner’s fourth quarter quarterbacking has earned him any commendation it should be for his unwavering resolve to stay the course and take X-treme risks. Major characters die in the movie. Onetime friends become enemies. Due to its darker tone and tragic climax, (or because of Singer’s absence), this third
X-Men installment will most likely be the least popular of the trilogy, but, to his credit, Ratner refused to play it safe.

The Empire Strikes Back is my favorite original trilogy Star Wars movie because the Evil Galactic Empire finally gives the ragtag rebellion a bloody nose. It isn’t uplifting, but it is realistic; and those are the qualities I most admire about X3. Besides, who ever said the final chapter of a saga has to end on a happy note? Sure, the grand finale of an action-packed trilogy can feature furry little Ewoks dancing around a bonfire and singing “Yub, Yub,” but I’d rather see a winner-takes-all, battle royal between trained military personnel, the X-Men and Magneto’s mutant army. Who wouldn’t?

So, will this be the final
X-Men movie? Before coming to any conclusions, make sure you stay through the ending credits.

Rating: 3

Just My Luck (PG-13)

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Directed by: Donald Petrie
Starring: Lindsay Lohan
May 2006

“Polar Opposites Attract in Lucky Lohan’s Love Story”


Years ago I had a roommate who was unbelievably lucky; if it wasn’t for the fact that he was such a genuine, charismatic, decent, all-around good guy who deserved every gift that was ever lavished upon him, I probably would have gone stark raving nuts. Were it anyone else, I would have been nauseous every time the woman behind the bakery counter gave him an extra cookie for free, or when a generous stranger sold him a car for a dollar after learning he was without transportation (the honest to goodness truth). But, I can’t begrudge my ex-roommate any of this; he’s a quality person, someone who can walk right up to anybody and become their best friend within five minutes. The funny thing is…his ability to seem helpless, and thereby receive countless acts of charity, was completely lost upon him until I pointed it out to him. He eventually came to the realization that his was truly a charmed life. Perhaps you know someone like this.

When it comes to luck, Ashley Albright (Lindsay Lohan), reminds me of my ex-roommate. A spirited and overly-optimistic debutante, Ashley has everything going for her; beauty, talent, wealth and most of all, luck…the second she steps outside into a downpour, the rain, as if sensing her presence, ceases to fall. Ashley’s never known a loosing lottery ticket and when she hails a taxi, every cab in the vicinity converges upon her position. Her polar opposite, Jake Hardin (Chris Pine), is a walking calamity; Jake’s an affable, well-intentioned young man who just has terrible luck…when it’s not raining on him, pigeons are pooping on him. And, just when it looks as if his fortunes might change (Jake finds a five dollar bill in the trash can), he discovers that fate has played a nasty trick on him (he picks up the bill and gets warm, mushy poodle poop all over his hand).

Ashley and Jake eventually meet at a masquerade party. Jake ushers Ashley onto the dance floor, and in a fateful moment of passion, they engage in a lingering kiss that reverses their luck. Ashley becomes a hapless klutz and gets a taste of how folks live on the other side of the luck spectrum…she’s fired from her job and thrown in jail for unwittingly setting up her boss (Missi Pyle) with a male escort. Jake’s fortunes immediately change for the better; he saves the life of a big shot record producer and secures a contract for the band he’s been promoting, McFly (an obvious homage to
Back to the Future). McFly is poised for their big break, but when Ashley kisses Jake to get her good luck back, things come crashing down upon Jake and the band. Ashley’s conscience forces her to make a terrible (by chick flick standards) choice: In order to get the man of her dreams, she must give up her life of ease and forever be unlucky.

Lohan has come a long way from her
Parent Trap days, but it’s as if she’s got one wing outside the cocoon and is just waiting for the right role to come along to free her from her teeny-bopper chrysalis and establish her as a full-fledged movie star. Lohan is superstitious in real life, which perfectly plays into her part and the story in general; but we’ve seen the whole “role reversal” gimmick before in some of her other movies, most notably, Freaky Friday. It’s high time for Lohan to turn over a new (tea) leaf, and play a part that has some depth and believability.

Pine is a breath of fresh air in the movie, and if the film is successful in any way, it’s due in large part to his skilled portrayal of a young man plagued by Murphy’s Law. We can identify with his character more than Lohan’s because he’s a guy who’s making his way in the world while just trying to make it through the day…Lohan’s debutante is a spoiled brat who deserves her comeuppance when she looses her luck.

Director Donald Petrie (
Miss Congeniality) has served us up a reheated version of Danny Glover and Martin Short’s Pure Luck. In that film, unlucky Short is hired to find the missing daughter of a wealthy businessman. In the end, the theory that one unlucky soul will find another is proven true in the highly amusing tale. Whereas, Pure Luck is a comedy; Just My Luck is a chick flick replete with silly scenes like the sudsy explosion in Jake’s laundry room or the sequence where Ashley kisses twenty guys in an attempt to find the man who stole her luck. The movie tells us that “the wheel always spins back.” Maybe the wheel can give me back my two hours…that would be lucky!

Rating: 2

Ice Age: The Meltdown (PG)

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Directed by: Carlos Saldanha
Starring: Ray Romano
March 2006

“Frigid Sequel Lacks the Warmth of the Original”


As if Al Gore’s treatise on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, wasn’t sufficient enough, the much publicized, highly controversial topic is now the centerpiece of an animated film; namely the sequel to Ice Age, subtitled The Meltdown. The movie, presumably, takes place a short time after the events of the first film and furthers the misadventures of Sid the Sloth (John Leguizamo), Manny the mammoth (Ray Romano) and Diego the saber tooth tiger (Denis Leary). Oh, and of course we can’t forget Skrit or his eternal quest to possess that one elusive acorn in the ever amusing series of silly sidebars.

As the title would suggest, the first movie dealt with prehistoric animals migrating at the onset of the ice age. This time around the ecological calamity is a melting glacier, which floods the ice plain and drives the creatures from their homes. While doomsayers sway susceptible dinos with apocalyptic warnings that the end of the world is at hand, hucksters like Fast Tony (Jay Leno) use such alarmist propaganda as a means of turning a profit; as one of the more interesting new characters, it’s too bad we didn’t see more of Fast Tony in the movie.

In a feeble attempt at expanding our knowledge of the prehistoric trio, the writers have introduced new challenges for each of the main characters to overcome. For Sid, the issue is his need for respect. Sid never receives any respect from his companions but he finally finds some when he encounters a tribe of mini-sloths, who abduct Sid and reverently dub him “Fire King.” Sid basks in their adulation until they attempt to sacrifice him over a pit of molten lava. No respect there! Sid must be the distant ancestor of Rodney Dangerfield.

Diego faces his greatest fear when the glacier starts melting; swallowing up the last patches of dry land, the encroaching water makes Diego’s passage to the other side of the valley a hair-raising one. In jest, Sid gives Diego this tip, “Land safe, water not safe.”

Manny’s plight is the most desperate; all evidence points to Manny being the last living mammoth. Manny is crestfallen over that grim reality until the company encounters Ellie (Queen Latifah), a female mammoth who hangs with two dimwitted, thrill seeking possum sidekicks, Eddie (Josh Peck) and Crash (Seann William Scott). Headstrong Ellie refuses to accept that she’s a mammoth (having been raised by possums, Ellie believes she is one), and challenges Manny’s asserted leadership at every turn. This might explain why mammoths are extinct.

The real trouble here, besides the contrived, gift-wrapped resolution, is that the movie has no antagonist. To be sure, there are several internal struggles which sustain viewer interest for a time, but the convenient climax effectively lifts the pressure cooker lid and releases any steam the movie’s been building. Other than the titular thaw, the only story element that ratchets up the tension is the intermittent danger presented by two deepwater creatures (the alligator-like reptiles may be a little too frightening for younger children).

The CG animation, which shows a vast improvement in quality over the first film, is the only element that’s superior in this appropriately dubbed sequel. The characters aren’t as fun or funny here, and even Skrit’s gags seem recycled. With the series already growing tired, one can only hope that 20
th Century Fox will deep freeze the series until the studio can commission a script that will better service the characters and the audience. The last thing we need is for the once charming Ice Age to devolve into The Land Before Time.

Rating: 2

The Shaggy Dog (PG)

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Directed by: Brian Robbins
Starring: Tim Allen
March 2006

“Sophomoric Silliness Abounds in Canine Resurrection”


If ever there was an ill-advised remake, The Shaggy Dog is it—actually the story has been rehashed so many times now, they need to put the poor old dog to rest once and for all. The original, released in 1959 and starring Fred MacMurray, Tommy Kirk and Annette Funicello, was a light, whimsical tale of a boy who could transform into a sheepdog by chanting an ancient spell. It was campy and had Disney’s family-friendly cheese slathered all over it, but the comedy fit the period and the story worked as an endearing testament to bravery and self-discovery.

Today’s audience, however, is much more sophisticated than that of decades past, and the new film, though star-studded (Tim Allen, Kristin Davis and Robert Downey, Jr.), lacks the insouciant charm of the original. In this version, Deputy D.A. Dave Douglas (Allen), is bitten by a 300 year old dog and transforms into a canine at Pavlovian intervals. As a dog, Dave gains a different perspective on himself (specifically his selfish and neglectful tendencies), his family and the world around him. Dave begins exhibiting strange behaviors, such as lapping up his cereal and growling in the courtroom. As silly as those moments are the parent/teacher scene, where Dave runs outside to tree a cat, and the scene where he steamrolls an old lady while pursuing another cat, are the height (or, more appropriately, depth) of inanity.

Davis (
Sex and the City) is mere set-dressing in the movie. She just seems to stand around and scratch her head at her husband’s bizarre transformations; an egregious waste for such a skilled actress. Downey, Jr. plays a mad scientist who seeks to discover and patent the fountain of youth; capturing the ancient dog gives him the means to accomplish this lofty goal, but what could have been a meaty turn as a nefarious antagonist is reduced to a series of courtroom antics tantamount to Allen’s high jinks. Danny Glover and Jane Curtain are also among the cast—the D.A. and judge, respectively—but their considerable talents are wasted by director Brian Robbins and the wafer-thin screenplay which was, ironically, churned out by a team of eight writers.

Allen’s performance here has redefined the word “stereotypical.” This is the same old shtick he’s been getting by with for years, and if anything, it’s more obnoxious and less enjoyable than before. In the movie, Dave has a heightened sense of smell and the ability to converse with animals; too bad the actor playing him wasn’t perceptive enough to recognize an embarrassing role replete with remedial gags and cheap laughs.

The end result of
The Shaggy Dog is similar to taking a poodle in for grooming—you don’t leave with very much. If the movie has a saving grace, it’s that it doesn’t overstay its welcome; kids will love it, but most adults will be glad when it’s Rover.

Rating: 1 1/2

King Kong (PG-13)

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Directed by: Peter Jackson
Starring: Naomi Watts
December 2005

“Lots of Art, Not Much Heart”


Peter Jackson’s King Kong in a word? BIG! There’s nothing small about the movie…the scope, scale and vision are unparalleled, save for Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The movie is a dazzling spectacle, a modern masterpiece and a throwback to Hollywood’s Golden Age all wrapped up in one hairy, king-sized package.

I suppose the prevailing question surrounding the high-profile, highly-anticipated film is, “Why another remake of the B tier creature-feature, first released some seventy-two years ago?” The quick answer is that Jackson fell in love with the original as a wee lad; it was his profound admiration for the clunky stop-motion classic that inspired him to become a motion picture director. The real answer is…who’s going to deny Jackson anything? After sweeping all eleven statuettes at the 2004 Academy Awards ceremony for the final
LOTR installment, The Return of the King, Jackson could film a blue screen for three hours and we’d still watch it.

While surveying the well-established, highly-eclectic cast, the biggest surprise (and bone of contention among pre-premier fans) was the decision to tap slapstick comedy actor, Jack Black (
School of Rock), for the title role. After viewing the film, however, most people probably will agree that Black does a superb job of fleshing out the young, brazen film director, Carl Denham. The ambitious auteur, as drawn by Jackson and Black, is frighteningly similar to a young Orson Welles; and you can be sure that such similarities aren’t lost upon either director or actor. Denham’s narcissism drives him to lie, cheat and cajole in order to get his picture made. The character possesses an eerie brand of fearlessness…even with dinosaurs charging toward him, Denham keeps the camera rolling, and it’s ultimately Denham who throws the bottle of chloroform that KO’s the angry gorilla. Denham is devastated when his camera is destroyed, but shows no remorse, whatsoever, for his fallen comrades. So severe is his megalomania and so entrenched is his need to be loved by the masses (Citizen Kane), that Denham revels in the opportunity to showcase the gigantic gorilla in an exhibition when they arrive back in NYC; taking credit for capturing the ferocious beast whenever he can, of course. Denham’s unbridled ambition and lust to provide his audience with a spectacle is a fascinating character study; in this memorable turn, Black is flawless.

Adrien Brody is adequate as renowned playwright, Jack Driscoll, but it’s Naomi Watts, in the pivotal role as struggling actress, Ann Darrow, who really steals the show. Though she never threatens to dethrone Fay Wray, Watts does an excellent job of emoting only when necessary. There’s a wonderful scene where Ann performs dance movements for Kong to entertain him (and keep him from eating her)—Kong soon grows bored and knocks her down to amuse himself. After repeatedly being shoved to the ground, a furious Ann strikes back at Kong, pricking his finger with a branch. Kong goes berserk and nearly destroys everything around him until a boulder falls on his head and dazes him. In that moment, the beast realizes the beauty isn’t afraid of him…an emotional bond forms between them. This touching moment, like the sad goodbye before Kong tragically plummets to his death, allows a ray of humanity to break through the cloud of CGI. Sadly, these intimate segues are few and far between in the film.

Andy Serkis (who makes a cameo as the ship’s cigar-chomping cook) is masterful as Kong. He brings the full gamut of motions, emotions and facial expressions to the colossal gorilla—in the same way he did for
LOTR’s Gollum—by donning the blue sensor suit that’s become a second skin to the actor. Serkis will go down in motion picture history as the CG man…a truly unique and unsung talent.

The excellent performances bring the movie to life and the script (slightly tweaked from the original) is engaging, but it’s clearly the special effects that drive the film. Jackson earned the title “FX Wizard” while working on the
LOTR movies, but in the words of Emeril Lagasse, he’s “kicked it up a notch” for King Kong, unleashing the creative masterminds from his Weta Workshop upon his dream project (many of the skilled artisans have worked with Jackson for the past decade now).

The iconic battle between Kong and the fighter planes atop the Empire State Building has received a facelift here, but seems like a no-brainer to storyboard. More impressive are the scenes involving the natives kidnapping Ann, the dinosaur stampede, Kong overturning the giant tree bridge and the scene where colossal slugs and bugs attack the explorers (easily the most disgusting tableau I’ve seen in a non-horror movie for quite some time—a full four minutes of creepy-crawly nastiness). One of the most deftly executed action sequences ever to grace the silver screen occurs near the movie’s midpoint…Ann desperately tries to escape the reckless pursuit of three Vastatosaurus Rex’ (think T-Rex with acne and bad dental work), faux dinosaurs dubbed by the clever minds at Weta. The sequence where Kong takes on all three Rex’ while tossing Ann from hand to foot, etc., is pure kinetic euphoria, and the scene where they all fall though the vines (Ann comes within inches of a Rex’ snapping jaws) is the creative high point of the film. There’s a great moment at the conclusion of the fight when Kong separates the Rex’ jaw from its head and beats his chest in defiance. Take that, you overgrown iguana!

For all of its technical achievement, however,
King Kong misses the point by missing the human element of the story. Character development is inexcusably cursory in the film (which weighs in at 3 hours and 7 minutes) and everyone except for Denham and Darrow is overpowered by the movie’s unrelenting, mind-blowing effects. Though the story is a bit plodding before the Venture reaches Skull Island, the action achieves break-neck pace on the island, leaving little room for meaningful conversation unless you consider screams of terror to be finely-crafted dialogue.

Maybe we’ve come to expect too much from the story in the first place. The notion that a gigantic simian can fall in love with a woman (and a knock-out at that) will always remain a silly one, but
King Kong, somehow, makes that improbability feasible and accessible with convincing performances and skilled direction. Jackson’s King Kong is finely-mounted, keenly-focused and larger than life in most respects. Whether or not it captures the heart and soul of the original is up to personal opinion. One thing is for certain, however, Jackson’s take on the classic story doesn’t monkey around.

Rating: 3

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (PG)

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Directed by: Andrew Adamson
Starring: Tilda Swinton
December 2005

“Enchanting and Spellbinding with Nary a Muggle or Hobbit”


C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia series (seven books) is as well-know and well-loved as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy (Lewis and Tolkien were contemporaries: both belonged to a writing think-tank in England called the Inklings), but Lewis’ books are much more kid-friendly than Tolkien’s darker, edgier and more violent epic masterpiece. The most popular Narnia novel, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, was the first book I read multiple times as a child. Beyond the magical features and mythical creatures, I was captivated by the story’s universal themes, colorful characters, heart-stopping action and streamlined pacing—Lewis gradually introduces the reader to the alternate world of Narnia by ushering one, two and finally, all four of the Pevensie children into his enchanted realm. Every element in the story, which is essentially a classic fairy tale in fantasy trappings, is designed to transport the reader into Lewis’ fully-realized world, which is exceedingly easy to get lost in…especially for a ten year old boy.

Writing a review for the movie adaptation of the cherished book
is like summing up all of one’s favorite childhood Christmas moments in a thousand words or less…the abbreviated piece of prose would never do the memories justice. And just as my perceptions of Christmas have changed as I’ve grown older, so have my recollections of the book—some elements I thought were in the book were only products of my youthful imagination. This phenomenon isn’t lost upon director, Andrew Adamson, who commissioned the screenwriters to forge a script based not on Lewis’ masterwork, but on his own childhood memories of the book. The resultant script presents several creative deviations but remains faithful to the source material—Lewis’ novel is a wildly imaginative and magical work of art and, thankfully, so is Adamson’s movie.

The timeless tale begins in blitzkrieg-devastated London during WWII, where the four Pevensie children—Lucy (Georgie Henley), Edmund (Skandar Keynes), Susan (Anna Popplewell) and Peter (William Moseley)—are sent by train to a provincial estate owned by the mysterious professor (Jim Broadbent in a predestined role). The children set out to explore the sprawling mansion, and on one rainy afternoon, decide to play hide-and-seek. In a last-ditch effort to avoid being discovered by Peter, Lucy enters a spare room containing only one piece of furniture…an ornate, freestanding wardrobe. Seeking refuge inside the wardrobe, Lucy walks deeper in—toward the back of the wardrobe—where she soon discovers that the arms of fur coats have transformed into the branches of fir trees. Lucy turns in wide-eyed amazement to see a snow-covered forest and a pristine path leading to a lonely lamppost.

Such begins the amazing journey into the spellbound land of Narnia, where the children encounter a faun, a beaver family, a pack of vicious wolves, centaurs, a magnificent lion, and a blood-chilling witch. At its reality-meets-fantasy core,
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a classic confrontation between good and evil, where good is represented by Aslan the lion (voiced by Liam Neeson) and evil is personified in Jadis, the White Witch (Tilda Swinton at her malevolent best), with Edmund the traitor trapped between these terrifyingly preponderant forces.

As was mentioned earlier, the story closely adheres to Lewis’ original written page, but there are a few notable exceptions. The war is only mentioned on page one of the book, but Adamson has created a slick opening sequence with German bombers making Swiss cheese out of London streets and forcing many families, like the Pevensie’s, into bomb shelters. In the book, the beavers are much more austere than their movie counterparts, who, with all of their bickering, have become the animal kingdom’s version of Edith and Archie and the movie’s only comic relief. Susan and Lucy’s involvement in the battle (Lewis’ version held that “…battles are ugly when women fight.”) is an effort to curtail sexist or derogatory language while keeping in step with the times. Two insightful omissions from the movie are talking giant Rumblebuffin and Aslan’s flying leap into the witch’s castle…they worked well in the book but would have tanked in the movie.

Every creative and visual aspect of the movie is first-rate: from the costumes, sets and make-up to the breathtaking cinematography (all locations were filmed in New Zealand) and the jaw-dropping, eye-popping special effects (Aslan is a CG marvel), the movie should be well-stocked with technical nominations come Oscar season. Harry Gregson-Williams’ sweeping, transporting and magical score—blending orchestral movements with Celtic-flavored cues (much like Howard Shore’s
L.O.T.R. scores)—is one of the finest I’ve heard this year and is certainly worthy of Oscar consideration.

The creative and financial wizards behind Narnia took several considerable risks in making a movie that, for decades, had been tossed from studio to studio like a hot potato, the first of which was using small-time studio, Walden Media (
Holes), to produce the film. The second was securing New Zealand native, Andrew Adamson (who co-directed both Shrek installments), to helm the film…his first attempt at live-action. The third and potentially most dangerous risk was tapping four unknown British kids to play the Pevensie children unaltered from the book, meaning no modern wardrobe or dialogue; a move that could alienate younger viewers rather than attract them (an unnecessary fear…the children are brilliant, especially the sweetly innocent Henley).

In addition to the movie’s many risks is the well-documented “controversy” over Lewis’ story: some see it as classic fantasy, while others see it as religious allegory. Adamson has his own philosophy about the story, “I read the books before I even knew what allegory meant, and I enjoyed them purely as an adventure. That’s how the film should be able to be enjoyed, too.”

Though Lewis was openly disparaging of motion pictures, claiming that he was “rather allergic to films,” I’m sure he would be proud of Adamson’s efforts and agree that this adaptation of his beloved children’s tale is nothing to sneeze at.

Rating: 3

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (PG-13)

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Directed by: Mike Newell
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe
November 2005

“Darker, Edgier and Hotter than the Other Potter’s”


The fourth Harry Potter movie has been adapted from the fourth novel in J.K. Rowling’s blockbuster book series and, fittingly, shares the same name as its literary progenitor. It’s clear from the outset—when evil spirits swoop in to disrupt the finals of the Quidditch World Cup—that Goblet will be a darker film than the oft-frivolous and pedestrian adventures embarked upon in the earlier trilogy. It’s time for Harry to put on his big boy pants.

Spoiler alert: A highlight of the film for many viewers (or perhaps just for this fantasy prone reviewer) is sure to be the Tri-Wizard Tournament with its various events specifically designed to test the contestant’s fortitude of body, character, mind and will. Harry’s run-in with the dragon is a mesmerizing series of narrow escapes and hair-raising, hair singing scrapes. The CG detailing on the fire-breathing behemoth is absolutely astounding, so kudos to the movie’s FX wizards (the muggle variety). The underwater test of ingenuity and integrity features a highly imaginative setting and boasts an incredibly intense action sequence…you can almost visualize the storyboards in your mind as the scenes play out one pulse-pounding shot after the next. Harry’s clever breathing apparatus and daring rescue mission are highlights of the hair-raising spectacle and serve to further affirm Harry’s heroic status. The final challenge—the race through a hedge maze (on loan from Labyrinth) to the Goblet of Fire—tests Harry’s mettle around every turn, where various pitfalls have been carefully arranged to waylay Harry’s advance toward the coveted cup.

Before the action has completely abated, Harry is visited by a shadowy form—yep, that’s a damp chill languidly writhing its way up your spine. Even though I haven’t read the novels, I’d be willing to bet that Harry’s encounter with the evil presence at movie’s end will figure prominently into future events. I know, the most conservative bet in history, but there can be no doubt that from here on out Harry will need to watch his back and rely more heavily on his circle of loyal friends.

Though carrying itself more seriously than the previous films,
Goblet is still an intensely fun romp through Rowling’s magical world. Director Mike Newell manages the actors and action well, but if ever there was an argument against the auteur theory, the Potter series would provide a strong case. After all, does it really matter who the director is on these Potter films? It seems like the machine is so well-oiled at this point (owing largely to the strength of the source material, the spot-on performances and exceedingly high production values) that no matter who’s at the helm the results will be…magical. One thing’s for sure; Goblet is the creative zenith for the movie series thus far.

Since the Rowling’s plots seem to be getting bleaker by the book, it’s safe to assume that the next film,
The Order of the Phoenix, will also be a few shades darker than Goblet. For better or worse, that young, innocent boy who first stepped foot in Hogwarts a few years ago is growing up…along with the legions of fans who devour his books and turn out in droves to enjoy his exploits on the big screen. You might say that his fans have an inextinguishable fire.

Rating: 3 1/2

Just Like Heaven (PG-13)

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Directed by: Mark Waters
Starring: Reese Witherspoon
September 2005

“Metaphysical Love Story is Comely if Not Heavenly”


Elizabeth Masterson (Reese Witherspoon) has it all. She’s a young, beautiful, successful doctor, who is widely admired and resides in a quaint bay view apartment in San Francisco. The only thing she doesn’t have is the one thing she wants the most—a great guy she can settle down and start a life with; everything would be heavenly then. On one rainy night, Elizabeth, in a hurry to get home and change for a blind date, crashes into the side of a semi-truck.

Enter David Abbott (Mark Ruffalo), an architect who is searching for a new dive when a flyer advertising Elizabeth’s place blows right into his face. Taking that as a sign, David moves in and makes himself at home (spilling chips and soda on the sofa), much to Elizabeth’s dismay and disapproval. Inevitably, the two tenants meet and the sparks immediately start flying. After a vehement argument, David eventually proves to Elizabeth that she’s dead—he can see her, but nobody else can.

David begrudgingly assists Elizabeth in tracking down clues about her life—it’s a journey of discovery for the pair as they strike up an uneasy friendship that deepens as they continue picking up loose threads together. There are plenty of “crazy man talking to someone who’s not there” scenes (the bit where David gives a choking man first aid with instructions from Elizabeth is extremely funny), but ultimately they end up at the hospital where Elizabeth had previously worked. While David grills a nurse who worked with Elizabeth, the spectral Elizabeth passes through a wall and discovers the movie’s first major twist—she sees herself on a hospital bed lying motionless in a coma.

David later learns from his best friend that Elizabeth was the one he was supposed to meet on the blind date that fateful night—somehow, even though they never met, there’s a spiritual connection between David and Elizabeth, which you would never guess from the way they constantly toss acidic barbs at each other.

The last major twist, which gives the trolling plot a much-needed jolt of urgency, comes when Elizabeth’s sister, Abby (Dina Waters), reluctantly decides to sign the papers authorizing the hospital staff to pull the plug. Now it’s a race against time as David, translating Elizabeth’s words from beyond (a la John Edward), tries to convince Abby that Elizabeth is still alive.

Based on the book
If Only It Were True by Marc Levy, Just Like Heaven has undeniable shades of Ghost and Heaven Can Wait, and though often derivative, the movie is carried by strong performances and an accessible story that packs an unexpected, emotional punch. The movie’s director, Mark Waters (Mean Girls), has crafted the quintessential dromedy, which should appeal to a wide audience with its wit, pathos and uplifting fifth act.

If you can deal with the metaphysical quagmires in the story,
Just Like Heaven is a heart-warming tale that exemplifies the unquenchable human spirit and is easily one of the finest examples of its genre ever crafted. Just Like Heaven? Not quite. But for earthly entertainment it’s a sweet and charming repast.

Rating: 3

The Brothers Grimm (PG-13)

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Directed by: Terry Gilliam
Starring: Matt Damon
August 2005

“Aptly Named Creature Feature Tells Grim Tale”


In a world where a great movie is solely determined by great special effects, The Brothers Grimm would be considered one of the finest films of the year. Unfortunately for director Terry Gilliam and scribe Ehren Kruger, we don’t live in such a world.

The Brothers Grimm is a strange conglomeration of classic fairy tales, and while this arrangement worked like a charm for Shrek, it’s a confusing and contrived wreck here—the movie isn’t entertaining nor is it funny despite it’s valiant attempts. In many ways, The Brothers Grimm is this year’s Van Helsing (as if we really needed another one of those) and comes complete with macabre trappings and the requisite werewolf.

Set in Germany against the backdrop of the French occupation of 1796, Jake (Heath Ledger) and Will (Matt Damon) Grimm are renowned witch hunters and demon slayers who are coerced—by their French captors—into entering a haunted forest and tracking down the person or creature who has kidnapped a number young girls (Gretel and Red Riding Hood among them). Their quest leads them to a gigantic tree located in the heart of the forest, which houses a glass fortress at the top. A cursed man who can transform into a werewolf has placed the kidnapped girls inside caskets encircling the base of the tree. The skeletal remains of Queen Mirror (Monica Bellucci) will be reanimated and the wolf-man’s curse will be broken if he can find one final girl. The Grimm brothers thwart the queen’s plans, of course, but not before a rousing and frenetic climax.

I have to admit that
The Brothers Grimm didn’t hold my interest much past the opening credits. The plot is frequently aimless and ultimately pointless, the dialogue is as stale as one of Gretle’s breadcrumbs and I didn’t give a flip about any of the characters. Ledger and Damon have turned in mediocre performances that perfectly match the uninspired production.

There’s been a recent regression in motion picture special effects—not in quality but in believability—and the movie’s werewolf is a perfect example: there’s no arguing that the wolf is flawless in its CG rendering, but the problem is…it’s too perfect. The fur is perfectly placed, the eyes are too clear, without the slightest degree of glazing or reddening, and the creature’s movements are too fast and jerky so as to mask the its artifice. The one effect that does work well is when Queen Mirror—as an ambulatory, two-dimensional, fractured mirror—attacks the Grimm brothers…her death scene, where the shard of her talking mouth is crushed, is absolutely brilliant.

The Brothers Grimm has an abundance of on-screen magic, but has little movie magic; it’s a visual smorgasbord of empty calories that leaves you craving a meatier plot.

Rating: 2

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (PG-13)

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Directed by: Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp
July 2005

“Depp’s Wonka Will Give You the Willies”


As everyone on the planet knows by now, this movie is a remake of the 70’s classic, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Narratively, the story strays little from the original, but creatively, a whole new world bursts forth thanks to updated special effects (a catchphrase used too often for remakes) and Tim Burton’s skewed sensibilities.

The film’s opening is an instant masterpiece—Charlie Bucket’s (Freddie Highmore) colorful family, including dirt-poor parents and feisty grandparents (both sets sleep on either end of the same bed), really strikes the right chord of likeability and pathos with witty banter, amusing anecdotes and familial harmony amid abject poverty. Charlie’s Grandpa Joe (David Kelly) is a hoot—besides Charlie, he’s the most enjoyable character to watch, especially when he does his little jig after Charlie brings home the magical Golden Ticket from the ultra-rare Wonka Bar.

When the five children and their adult escorts enter the factory, two changes occur simultaneously: 1. creativity and color increase, and 2. intimacy and warmth decrease. Most of the gags inside the factory are virtually identical to the ones in the original, i.e. fatso getting sucked up into a tube and bratty bubble gum champ turning into a giant blueberry (the TV room scene is also here, with updated special effects, of course). Though amusing and well choreographed, I could have done with one less Oompa Loompa (Deep Roy) number (we get the point, already!). However, Roy’s cut and paste performance is truly remarkable.

The dénouement is a departure from the original, but isn’t necessarily unwelcome—Wonka makes amends with his estranged, molar-retentive father (Christopher Lee), and Charlie’s relatives become a surrogate family for the eccentric inventor of all things sweet—Wonka has selected Charlie to be his protégé and eventual heir apparent.

The movie owes its success to Burton’s singular vision and Highmore’s accessible, sometimes-good-guys-do-finish-first performance. However, it’s the cinematic irony of the new millennium that this Johnny Depp vehicle picture was almost sabotaged by Depp himself. To be sure, Depp always turns in quirky, multi-layered performances, and his version of Wonka is no different. Here, however, the character he’s been given to portray is downright creepy—the way Wonka is drawn, wearing silk gloves and face covered in ashen make-up, might be considered poor taste in the wake of the Michael Jackson trial. Besides the obvious Jackson caricature, the character has none of the charm Gene Wilder imbued his Wonka with, and the way Depp condescends the children (especially the “mumbler”) is utterly distasteful. The film succeeds despite Depp’s effeminate Wonka, but how much more enjoyable would the movie have been if Wonka was actually likeable?

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a visual delight—during the early stages of the movie, Burton films buildings and people at wildly slanted angles and the Bucket home—complete with a depressed chimney that sags like a greasy French fry—looks like something right out of Dr. Seuss. There’s no doubt that movie magic resides here, perhaps to an even greater degree than the original, and yet, this take on Roald Dahl’s timeless children’s book is tainted by Depp’s quirky protagonist. In the movie’s climax, the glass elevator crashes through the factory roof and seems poised to sail clear up into space…what brings it, and the movie, back down to earth is a Wonka that we merely tolerate for Charlie’s sake.

Rating: 3

Fantastic Four (PG-13)

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Directed by: Tim Story
Starring: Ioan Gruffudd
July 2005

“Calling it Fantastic Would Be a Stretch”


At the end of my review for The Incredibles, I posited the question, “With a similar array of superpowers, has this movie stolen any thunder from next summer’s Fantastic Four?” The answer would appear to be no, at least for adults. Discovering and applying superpowers is a commonality of both films, but some kids may only be familiar with the ubiquitous The Incredibles, unless they’re well versed in comic lore and, naturally, would know that Fantastic Four predates Pixar’s animated juggernaut by a good forty-three years. Unfortunately for this film, many young people will mistakenly think Fantastic Four is ripping off The Incredibles when it’s really the other way around.

There’s no doubt that
Fantastic Four is superhero lite—ranking far below the X-Men, Spider-Man and newly invigorated Batman franchises—and yet, despite its clothesline plot, cursory character development and ad hoc science, the movie is a ton of fun. If there’s a saving grace for the movie, it’s friendly banter and humorous side effects to the quartet’s powers: self-absorbed Johnny Storm, a.k.a. the Human Torch (Chris Evans), bursts into flame while snowboarding and creates a hot tub when he takes a spill, and Ben Grimm, a.k.a. the Thing (Michael Chiklis) talks a businessman out of jumping off a bridge, “You think you’ve got problems? Look at me!” A seagull promptly poops on his rocky shoulder. Reed Richards, a.k.a. Mr. Fantastic (Ioan Gruffudd), and Sue Storm, a.k.a. the Invisible Woman (Jessica Alba) discover their mutant powers during a tension-filled dinner: Sue angrily orders Reed to look at her, but she’s faded from view, and later, Reed instinctively elongates his arm to catch a falling glass.

And let’s not forget the villain (as the writers almost did) billionaire capitalist, Victor Von Doom, a.k.a. Dr. Doom (Julian McMahon), owner of the orbiting space station that gets blasted by a solar flare, making everyone onboard fantastic. Dr. Doom plots to destroy the foursome when Sue, the woman of his dreams, returns to Reed. His only full-on act of evil, though, is when he blows a hole through a security guard’s chest.

The climactic battle royale is unsatisfactory in its brevity—the whole movie was building to this epic confrontation, but the infighting between Johnny and Ben (however unsavory) was far more dramatic than Dr. Doom’s last stand. Besides the shoehorn science, the one plot contrivance I couldn’t swallow was Ben’s choice to revert back to his despised, metamorphic alter ego in order to save Reed (Dr. Doom had previously restored Ben’s humanity). Now that’s friendship…or Hollywood!

It’s obvious that
Fantastic Four is just a springboard for a sequel/franchise; the movie is just entertaining enough to keep those hopes alive—and that’s no stretch!

Rating: 2 1/2

Bewitched (PG-13)

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Directed by: Nora Ephron
Starring: Nicole Kidman
June 2005

“Adds Modern Ingredients to the Old Witch’s Brew”


Instead of simply upgrading the 60’s sitcom to the big screen, this new, improved Bewitched takes the viewer inside the casting process and tedious production of a new TV series and the drama that swirls around the re-telling of a classic show. Sound confusing? It’s not; in fact, the entire movie is dull and overly simplistic—it doesn’t take a crystal ball or tea leaves to figure out the paint-by-numbers plot, and the one area of the movie where magic should have fulminated like a fireworks finale—the relationship between Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell) and Isabel Bigelow (Nicole Kidman)—is pedantic and predictable.

To be sure, Ferrell and Kidman are fine actors, but their chemistry here is scanty—like the amount of onscreen time actually dedicated to the romantic subplot—and their relationship is asserted not shown. Very little character development is conjured up in the movie, save for Isabel’s struggle against her insatiable desire to get whatever she wants by using magic...she’s a reformed witch. Her antagonizing father (Michael Caine) pops up from time to time (as the Gorton’s Fisherman or Jolly Green Giant in the freezer aisle—the most creative visuals in the film), and heckles her over the futility of eschewing her magical powers. Though hard-fought and heart-felt, Isabel’s internal battle with her own nature is a loosing effort; she abandons the kenosis and is soon back to her old lobe-wiggling tricks.

The scene where Jack meets Isabel in a café—Jack observes Isabel’s natural ability to do the “nose twitch” and convinces her to audition for the new
Bewitched show, Isabel agrees because she mistakenly thinks Jack is the perfect man—is utterly doltish...in fact, most of the scenes on the TV set are downright silly. Shirley MacLaine’s character, an undercover witch, is really more of a nuisance than a supporting player. Uncle Arthur’s (Steve Carell) random appearance serves as a voice of reason for Jack, who clearly needs to catch a clue about Isabel’s attraction to him, but the scenes are so teeth-grindingly annoying that after Carell’s character exits the screen, you have to scratch your head and wonder what the heck it was you just saw. There are only two standout scenes in the movie: 1. On the set, red-faced Isabel tells Jack he’s a jerk, and 2. Jack fails to realize Isabel is a “real” witch until she pulls out her broom and takes flight.

Though
Bewitched casts a weak spell, it somehow works as mindless entertainment. As bad as the movie is, it would have been even worse if the producers had taken the easy route and simply made Bewitched a retread of the original series. Either way, Bewitched suffers from remake-itis…there’s little magic here.

Rating: 2 1/2

Batman Begins (PG-13)

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Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale
June 2005

“The Dark Knight’s Sordid Origins Are Finally Revealed”


I was never a fan of the campy 60’s TV series, but I’ve read my fair share of Batman comic books. I saw the Dark Knight’s theatrical hat trick in the 90’s, and though I enjoyed moments of those Gothic tales (except for Schumacher’s debacle), I’ve always been a proponent of Batman: The Animated Series and have contended since its inception that any of those brilliant, half-hour episodes are better than the movies…until now.

Director, Christopher Nolan, has returned Batman to his essential and elemental roots in the globetrotting origins tale appropriately dubbed,
Batman Begins. From the opening sequence, where young Bruce Wayne falls into a pit teeming with squealing bats, to the final scene where Batman (Christian Bale) and Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman) discuss a clue that will lead them to next movie’s villain, this is the movie I, along with countless millions, have been chomping at the cowl to see…the birth of Batman.

Avoiding the pitfalls of the past (i.e. psychedelic neon lights or nippled Bat-suits), screenwriter, David S. Goyer, has drawn fully realized characters in real life situations…no oversized props or larger-than-life villains here. Goyer clearly did his homework for this project, researching the Dark Knight’s haunted past and neurotic present—he masterfully cuts back and forth between Bruce Wayne’s boyhood tragedies and adult struggles with fear and injustice. There’s a fair amount of social commentary in the movie that, thankfully, never comes across as stilted: themes of government corruption, societal degradation and terrorist infiltration of our infrastructure run rampant throughout the film. Besides a powerfully gripping and salient story with finely chiseled characters, Goyer’s dialogue is witty, incisive and delightfully variegated (though Gordon’s reaction to the new Batmobile, “I’ve gotta’ get me one of those,” was a bit much).

Nolan has assembled a dream cast headlined by Bale, whose previous movie,
The Machinist, called for a severely emaciated insomniac—the Welsh thespian gained 100 pounds in six months to adequately fill out the Bat-suit. Bale just might be the best big-screen Batman ever—he perfectly captures Keaton’s brooding melancholy and exhibits more humanity and vulnerability than either Kilmer or Clooney. Bale’s gravelly baritone is more menacing than any previous, live-action actor (no one will ever eclipse The Animated Series’ Kevin Conroy) to don the cape and cowl.

Aside from
Crash, Batman Begins boasts this year’s finest supporting cast of A-list actors, including: Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Oldman, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer, Ken Watanabe and Morgan Freeman. In an ironic turn, Neeson plays Ducard, Bruce’s Jedi-esque instructor, whose seemingly limitless knowledge veils a dangerously misguided soul. Murphy is pitch-perfect as the chillingly calculated Dr. Crane/Scarecrow, and Caine is the anchor and conscience (not to mention comic relief) of the film as the staid butler, Alfred—the scene where he struggles to get unconscious Rachel (Holmes) into the backseat of a car is uproariously funny.

Nolan’s bold vision has reinvented and reinvigorated a comatose, left-for-dead movie series. For legions of hopeful fans, or snake-bitten skeptics, who desperately want to believe that Batman is still a popular and profitable property, this movie should assuage any lingering doubts as to the Dark Knight’s appeal and potential—the franchise has faced its darkest fears and overcome them in grand, heroic fashion (much like our redoubtable protagonist). With Bale already onboard for a sequel and Nolan hinting at a trilogy, Batman’s screen future seems as secure as a lodged Batarang.

I’m extremely stingy when it comes to handing out perfect scores, but my only snafu with
Batman Begins is that Gotham City is Chicago, not New York as I prefer—and that’s pretty picayune. The only trouble the series now faces is a name for the sequel…Batman Continues?

Rating: 4

The Polar Express (G)

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Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Tom Hanks
November 2004

“Warm at the Core…Icy Around the Edges”


Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks are back together again, changing venues from a deserted Pacific island to the frozen wasteland of the North Pole. Based on the Caldecott award-winning children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg, The Polar Express is an uplifting tale about a magical train that whisks selected children off to the North Pole for a visit with Jolly Ole Saint Nick.

Even from the jaw-dropping trailer, it was clear that
The Polar Express would be the next iteration in computer-animated films. The movie is visually stunning (especially in IMAX 3-D), more so for virtual landscapes and breakneck action sequences than for the waxwork visages that make the characters appear too perfect.

Tom Hanks, again, asserts his range by playing/voicing five different characters in the film. Even with so much involvement, however, he’s still upstaged by the arduous and twist-riddled journey and by the train itself—the unsung hero of the movie.

The Polar Express, a feel-good story of friendship and courage, where warm fuzzies fly like arctic snowflakes, will undoubtedly be ushered into the halls of modern Holiday classics, but despite the enormous positive energy that surrounds it (almost like a cosmic aura), the film fails in several key areas.

The most obvious detractor is the simplicity of the plot and the straightforward manner in which the story is presented (granted the source material is a picture book for kids). I’m not spoiling anything when I say the majority of the movie takes place on the train; either going to or returning from the North Pole. Besides a wisp of character development here or there, the only element that lends the movie any kind of synergy is a series of adventures the train passengers have along the way. These mishaps, though engaging and exhilarating, are the only thing that holds the plot together.

Take, for instance, the young girl’s lost ticket that quickly becomes a silent seminar in Murphy’s Law. Although not nearly as exhausting as the sports almanac gimmick in
Back to the Future 2 (also helmed by Zemeckis), the ticket’s flight and plight is still far-fetched and overplayed. If deja vu sets in while watching the dizzying POV sequence, it’s because you have, indeed, seen it before—not with a ticket, but with a feather (Forrest Gump—yup, Zemeckis again).

Is anyone else bothered by the fact that none of the characters have hot breath billowing out of their mouths? Or that the children, seemingly unaffected by the gelid night air, walk around in their pajamas and never once shiver? These trifling details, however, are small grievances next to the movie’s insidious ability to pull at the heartstrings with a well-worded phrase or a well-timed song. Though finely-crafted, the movie’s songs were strategically placed to produce the maximum number of tears, but the foisted emotions quickly fade when the final image of the nearly-deified, silver sleigh bell fades to black.

The Polar Express has some magical moments, but, if you’re unaffected by its unbridled emotionalism, it’ll leave you out in the cold. Some will feel richer for having completed the journey; others will feel like they’ve been taken for a ride.

Rating: 2 1/2

Catwoman (PG-13)

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Directed by: Pitof
Starring: Halle Berry
July 2004

“Faithless Treatment of Feline Fatale”


I have to admit, Catwoman was a lot better than I thought it was going to be…but that’s still not saying much. This re-imagined version of the sleek and slinky serial villain features no Batman, no Gotham City, little plot, and ultimately, little fun. Catwoman is merely a vehicle picture for Halle Berry, whose acting starts out modest and progressively gets skimpier, much like her wardrobe.

As any Batman aficionado knows, Catwoman’s name is Selina Kyle, not Patience Phillips, and other than the tight cat suit, deadly leather whip and vigilante tactics, this Catwoman bears no resemblance to the original. For whatever reason, the writer and/or producer decided to give Catwoman a modern face-lift (as if that’s necessary) to appeal to today’s audience. What they’ve given us is a paper thin through line anchored by a series of fight scenes.

Recently fired from her job as an art designer, Patience overhears sensitive information about a soon-to-be-launched line of face creams that have known flaws. She’s promptly chased down and drowned in the bay, but fortunately, all the stray cats in the city surround her when she washes ashore and the lead cat (named Midnight) breathes feline vapors on Patience, transforming her in to Catwoman. Now, Patience/Catwoman is on a mission to find her killers and expose the make-up cover-up. Along the way, she meets debonair detective, Tom Lone (Benjamin Bratt) and supermodel turned criminal, Laurel Hedare (Sharon Stone), who engages Patience’s alter ego in a catfight near the film’s climax.

French auteur, Pitof, helmed
Catwoman, infusing the movie with frenetic action sequences, a plot stuck on fast-forward and dizzying special effects. His style works well in some instances—like when we get to see through Catwoman’s eyes—and fails miserably in others; most of Catwoman’s leaps and climbs look computerized, sped-up and fake.

Nearly every aspect of
Catwoman is average and if it weren’t for Halle Berry, the movie would be a complete loss. For some, seeing Halle frolicking around in a skin-tight, leather cat suit will be worth the price of admission, but if you’re looking for something else in the movie, say plot for instance, you’re sure to be disappointed. Bottom line: if you spent as many dollars as a cat has lives to see Catwoman, you’ve wasted your time and money. The movie certainly isn’t the cat’s meow!

Rating: 2

Spider-Man 2 (PG-13)

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Directed by: Sam Raimi
Starring: Tobey Maguire
June 2004

“Comic Book Art Meets High Art”


Spider-Man 2 scales far higher than its predecessor and will undoubtedly surpass the box office mark set by the original. With two solid chapters firmly lodged in the multi-million dollar web, this is already the most overwhelmingly well-received comic-to-screen adaptation and certainly, with just two movies, one of the top-grossing series to date. I’ll go one step further: not only is Spider-Man 2 one of the best sequels of all time, it’s without a doubt the finest superhero movie ever made (move over X-Men).

Tobey McGuire is back as the angst-ridden Peter Parker, and Kirsten Dunst has returned as the object of Peter’s undying affection, Mary Jane Watson (M.J.). A couple years have passed since the first film and Peter is living in a rundown apartment and struggling to pay the rent since he keeps getting fired from entry-level jobs. M.J. has made a name for herself in theater and her face adorns posters and billboards all over the city—ubiquitous and painful reminders for Peter, whose unrequited feelings for M.J. consume his every waking thought.

Peter’s life has begun to unravel due to the demands of being Spider-Man. In addition to his inability to hold down a job, he’s failing college and owes his professor a paper on fusion. Peter prevails upon his good friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) to introduce him to his hero, a fusion expert named Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina). During an ill-fated fusion experiment, Octavius is transformed into Dr. Octopus, an eight-limbed (four mechanical appendages) menace bereft of conscience or compunction.

Doc Ock goes on a rampage—robs a bank, tosses security guards around like rag-dolls, uses Aunt Mae as a hostage and later takes M.J. hostage. Doc Ock plans to rebuilt the fusion generator, and it’s up to Spider-Man to stop the tentacled madman; however, several complications arise, not the least of which involve his best friend’s hatred of Spider-Man, his own inability to produce webs when distracted by M.J.’s recent engagement to the “Daily Bugle” editor’s son and the rejection he experiences when he confesses to abetting in the death of Uncle Ben (not the rice, silly).

There’s a lot of character development in
Spider-Man 2—more so than the first, in fact—and the action sequences, though cutting-edge and pulse pounding, are few. Though atypical for an action film, Spider-Man 2 is an excellent model—and hopefully, trendsetter—for future comic book-based movies. Spider-Man 2 is really the only current action picture I can think of that hasn’t sacrificed character development and plot for glitzy special effects—it’s a complete movie, exhibiting the perfect blend of action, comedy and drama. Spider-Man 2 is movie magic because it has heart, something sorely missing from most big-budget extravaganzas these days.

Tobey McGuire, bad back and all, does a fantastic job of expanding our knowledge of Parker’s inner struggles—he makes the character believable and vulnerable—while maintaining the wit and whimsy that made the character viable and likeable in the original. Alfred Molina has realized one of the most three-dimensional villains in recent cinema history. Though his portrayal of Spidey’s chief nemesis is a bit over the top in spots, the humanity and pathos he infuses the character with elevates Doc Ock above the morass of garden-variety villains. Near the film’s climax, there’s a scene of redemption where Dr. Octavius, now in control of his four pesky appendages, destroys the experiment and drowns himself in the process.

Spider-Man 2 features fine performances by Dunst, Franco and J.K. Simmons as the impulsive, joke-a-minute editor of the “Daily Bugle,” J. Jonah Jameson, but Rosemary Harris really steals the show in her supporting role as Peter’s Aunt Mae. Here’s an actress with an amazing craft—her “heroes” speech to Peter is one of the most poignant moments of the film.

The lion share of the movie’s success belongs to Academy-award winning screenwriter, Alvin Sargent and director Sam Raimi. Like in the first film, Raimi expertly balances action and character scenes. His tip of the hat to the seventies, with “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” and his freeze-framed shot of Tobey McGuire, is absolutely hilarious.
Spider-Man 2 is high-powered, high concept fare that will appeal to those ages seven to one hundred and seven—it’s brought the fun back to the Cineplex.

Rating: 3 1/2

Van Helsing (PG-13)

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Directed by: Stephen Sommers
Starring: Hugh Jackman
May 2004

“Everything but the Mummy”


Mutants, werewolves and vampires…oh my! Van Helsing, the newest in a long line of creature features, is overstuffed with evil figures from classic literature. After the old-style, black-and-white prologue—which sets up Dracula’s plot and Frankenstein’s plight—Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) dukes it out with Mr. Hyde in the chapel of Notre Dame (I thought the hunchback hung out there, not Dr. Jekyll’s alter ego). This action-packed vignette has no bearing on the storyline other than to introduce the audience to Van Helsing’s abilities and gadgets.

The story really begins in Transylvania, where villagers are being assailed by three screeching, swooping she-vampires (Dracula’s brides). Van Helsing arrives not a moment too soon and rescues damsel in distress, Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale), along with the rest of the harried village by shooting a crossbow dart dipped in holy water through the chest of one of the screaming demonettes.

Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) schemes to take over the world by mating with his wives and producing little, flying gremlins. The experiment fails and the count realizes the only way to successfully produce offspring is to find Frankenstein and discover what techniques were used to bring him to life (is this a B movie plot, or what!). Van Helsing is faced with a difficult choice: in order to save the world, he must kill Frankenstein. As he searches for an alternative, he encounters the dreaded count—the movie wouldn’t be complete without a melee between Van Helsing and Dracula.

Hugh Jackman (
X-Men) is no stranger to big-budget, effects-driven pictures, and his performance gives Van Helsing some much-needed weight. Kate Beckinsale (Pearl Harbor) plays the typical tough woman, but she breaks down when her brother is turned into a werewolf. Her performance displays a convincing blend of strength and vulnerability. Van Helsing’s assistant, Friar Carl (David Wenham of Lord of the Rings fame), is the movie’s only comic relief, and is the man responsible for creating all of the weapons and devices Van Helsing employs in battle.

Helming
Van Helsing is Stephen Sommers (The Mummy), who was the perfect choice considering his extensive experience with creature movies in the past. Drawing from The Mummy films and other movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Sommers has painted a new look for action pictures, albeit in broad, gray strokes on a rather dark canvas. Though populated with familiar characters, Van Helsing features new twists and is an exhilarating ride, despite intensely evil scenes. But, in the end, good triumphs over evil and Van Helsing rides off into the sunset toward countless sequels and marketing tie-ins, no doubt.

Rating: 2 1/2

Hellboy (PG-13)

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Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Ron Perlman
April 2004

“Hell-bent on Action”


This movie is successful for one reason: Ron Perlman. The story is engaging, but sometimes it gets either too strange of too dark. The special effects are great, but a bit repetitive—how many slobbering, butt-ugly hell hounds can you endure before you’re ready to see something else? Every other aspect of the film is well made, but it’s really Perlman’s performance that prevents Hellboy from sliding into the Valhalla of B movies. Perlman has spent most of his career covered with make-up and prosthetics—Beauty and the Beast (TV show), Blade II and Star Trek: Nemesis just to name a few—so he was a natural choice for this devil-may-care hero, who has now been vaulted from the pages of the Dark Horse comic book onto the silver screen.

Hellboy has leathery, red skin, a massive right forearm (Cheesy Line Alert: “Look at that Whammer!”), and two filed horns on his forehead—in short, his appearance is anything but human. And yet, Perlman has infused the character with so much wit and vulnerability, that Hellboy exhibits more humanity than any other person—human or other—in the movie.

Hellboy has a close relationship with Prof. Trevor “Broom” Bruttenholm (John Hurt), the man who found the nascent red creature and became his mentor and surrogate father. Hellboy also has a secret love affair with fellow mutant, Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), a woman who can turn her assailants into toast if sufficiently provoked. The middle of the film brings about a couple of major twists with these relationships: Hellboy’s new assistant, F.B.I. agent John Meyers (Rupert Evans), unwittingly attracts Liz’s affections and Prof. Broom is killed by the movie’s antagonist, Kroenen, a centuries-old man who brandishes two retractable blades inside his cuffs and has sand for blood.

Rounding out the bizarre cast is Abe Sapien (performed by Doug Jones and voiced by David Hyde Pierce), an aquatic humanoid with incisive forensic skills and a scientist at the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, Dr. Tom Manning, played by the ever-witty Jeffrey Tambor. Director, Guillermo Del Toro, helmed the action sequences with adequate panache and handled the intimate, character scenes well, but the overall darkness (both literal and spiritual) of the picture is a drawback, despite Perlman’s moments of levity. On the spectrum of comic book movies,
Hellboy clobbers Daredevil and The Hulk, but doesn’t pack the punch of blockbusters like X-Men and Spiderman.

Rating: 2 1/2

Peter Pan (PG)

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Directed by: P.J. Hogan
Starring: Jeremy Sumpter
December 2003

“Return to a Dry Well”

Acting:
This new, live-action spin on J.M. Barrie’s classic tale,
Peter Pan boasts a solid cast of virtually unknown actors. Two performances stand out above the others; Jeremy Sumpter, who plays the title role and Jason Isaacs, whose dual role as Mr. Darling and Captain Hook is one of the few highlights of the movie. From a dramatic standpoint, this new movie features the best version of Hook ever committed to film—Isaacs’ portrayal of the sinister pirate captain is darker and subtler than any previous attempt, but the petulant Hook in Disney’s animated Peter Pan and Dustin Hoffman’s scheming and foreboding figure in Hook were both more amusing and more memorable than this year’s model.

Director:
Who the heck is P.J. Hogan?

Screenplay/Story:
The big question is, “Why do we need another remake of this story?” We have the aforementioned Disney’s
Peter Pan and Hook, and the recent straight-to-video flop, “Return to Neverland,” plus a cartoon series in the early nineties and a slew of story variations on stage. Truth is, it’s been done before and it’s been done better. There are only a few story elements that don’t come off like stale toast (or crumpets). There’s a nice touch at the beginning of the movie when Mr. Darling tries to impress his boss and bumbles all over himself—quite amusing. The reunion of the Darling children with their mother at the end of the movie packs a surprisingly emotional punch and is probably the most touching dénouement of any Peter Pan.

Special Effects:
There’s a very creative scene where Peter and the Darling children are spying on the Jolly Roger from up in the clouds and the pirate ship starts firing cannon balls through the clouds—great visual. The worst effect in the film is Hook’s bane; the crocodile’s movements look extremely unbelievable and unnatural in this shoddy piece of CGI. The best, and most beautiful, effect in the movie is in the forest, where an entire community of ferries dance and flit about like fireflies against the night sky.

Final Analysis:
If we ever return to Neverland, it will be far too soon.

Rating: 2

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (PG-13)

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Directed by: Peter Jackson
Starring: Elijah Wood
December 2003

“Triumphant Finale of Modern Masterpiece”


The word “triumph” hardly seems to suffice when used to describe the stupendous achievement that is The Return of the King, the third and final chapter in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The battles are bigger, the stakes are higher and emotions run deeper in this installment, which was labeled a modern classic by movie critics even before the film was released. Some would call that kind of buzz a heady brand of Hollywood hype. The problem with hype is it seldom lives up to its billing or to the audiences’ expectations. Hype for The Return of the King, however; is like holding a postcard from Disneyland, whereas the movie itself is like an exhilarating day of non-stop rides inside the real park.

Picking up right where
The Two Towers left off, The Return of the King forges ahead with multiple plot lines, a device that auteur Peter Jackson masterfully employed in the middle film. Sideline Hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) are finally elevated from comic relief status and actually figure prominently in the film’s major battle. The wizard, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is, again, underserved, but makes the most of his meager screen time; dispensing wit and wisdom with ease and demonstrating the battlefield prowess of a fierce warrior. Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli’s (John Rhys-Davies) friendship continues to deepen and is a genuine and heart-warming example of racial reconciliation. There are so many other wonderful characters (Bernard Hill’s Theoden and Miranda Otto’s Eowyn, just to name two) that give color and texture to the Tolkien/Jackson canvas, but the heart of the story involves Aragorn’s (Viggo Mortensen) claim to the throne and Frodo (Elijah Wood), Sam (Sean Astin) and Gollum’s (Andy Serkis) fateful journey to Mt. Doom; the only place in Middle-earth where the surpassingly evil “one ring” can be destroyed.

Aragorn has finally arrived in this film; he has clarity of purpose and a sense of urgency and resolve previously unseen in the trilogy. Armed with newfound gravitas, Aragorn flexes his royal muscles in two key moments: 1. He doesn’t take no for an answer when conscripting the aid of the Army of the Dead, and 2. He delivers a rousing, courageous and honor-inducing speech (the kind that would make you follow him over a cliff if he requested it) when leading his army against the hoards of orcs assembled at the foreboding Black Gate.

The technical aspects of the movie are nothing short of miraculous (The Battle of Pelennor Fields makes Helm’s Deep look like recess), but as with the other two pictures, dazzling effects don’t upstage the actors or the struggles their characters face—Jackson, again, brilliantly balances the epic and the intimate in seamless, yet impacting, ways. And this is nowhere more evident than with the bound-by-fate ménage a trios of Frodo, Sam and Gollum. Here is the real vertex—the focal point—of the entire expansive tale. The trio’s flight into the heart of disheartening Mordor brings attitudes and motives to a head: Sam’s escalating distrust of Gollum, Frodo’s increasing vulnerability to the will of the ring and Gollum’s scheming ways and ever-present lust to reclaim his
precious. Forget about the battle between orcs and men, this is the real conflict in the movie.

These scenes have many nuggets that lay just beneath the surface: ineffable motivations, telling glances and subtext between characters that speaks volumes in the absence of any actual dialogue. Case in point; somewhere in the arduous journey it becomes clear that Sam, not Frodo, is the true hero of this sprawling epic. Also, there is tremendous spiritual significance to Gollum’s fateful plunge into the sea of fire—the symbolism between the enticements of the ring and evil’s alluring nature will likely never be captured in a more poignant tableau.

There are several emotionally-charged scenes near the end of the film; a coronation, a reunion of lovers and many farewells, but perhaps the most touching moment is when King Aragorn, and the rest of his kingdom, kneels in abeyance to the four Hobbits—a fitting fulfillment of Galadriel’s prior prophetic statement, “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.” And in unique ways, each of the Hobbits has played a vital role in the coda of Tolkien’s masterpiece. And in his diminutive, Hobbit-like way, Jackson has also left his indelible mark on the future of motion pictures—will the symbolism ever end?

Only two things come to mind as negative aspects of the film: 1. There is only a hint of the romance between Faramir and Eowyn—as chronicled in the book (perhaps this relationship will be fleshed out in the imminent Extended Edition of the film), and 2. The movie’s wrap-up drags on a bit too long and certainly isn’t aided by a series of mock endings.

The Return of the King is destined to garner multiple Academy Awards and seems positioned to make a solid bid for best director and best picture. Despite all of its many accolades, however, some would still choose to label The Lord of the Rings as nothing more than glorified sword and sorcery, a child’s tale…not to be taken seriously. But make no mistake, The Return of the King is high art in fantasy trappings. The king of all movies/trilogies has finally arrived.

Rated: 3 1/2

Timeline (PG-13)

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Directed by: Richard Donner
Starring: Paul Walker
November 2003

“Mediocre Romp Through Time”


A faithful (if greatly abridged) adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel of the same name, Timeline is a fun, popcorn movie that entertains but doesn’t trick you into thinking that it’s a major blockbuster hit…because it’s not. It is, however, a great way to get lost in the past for two hours.

The story breaks down like this: a well-financed tech company (ITC) has discovered a way to send someone back in time. Professor Johnston is trapped in France in the year 1357, and it’s up to his son, Chris, and Chris’ history-buff companions to rescue the professor from a life in the past. To add tension and urgency to their quest, the team only has six hours to retrieve the professor before they are automatically returned to the present day. And, to make matters worse, the group arrives on the day of a massive battle between the English and French armies, and they’re trapped on the loosing side.

There’s no one area of
Timeline that’s spectacular, but as a whole, the movie works quite well. The acting is decent, though most of the faces are unfamiliar, save for Paul Walker (2 Fast 2 Furious) and Neil McDonough (Minority Report). The historical costumes, sets and props all look authentic and the directing by Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon) is deft; though, the movie lags in a couple of places. The ending battle sequences are excellent, revealing the more visceral side of combat in the fourteenth century—the catapult shots and flaming arrow scenes were riveting.

If there’s a downside to
Timeline, it’s the cursory character development and lack of scientific explanations with regard to the time machine. Granted, there isn’t enough time in a two hour movie to delve into every aspect of how the time machine was built and operates, but the fact that it does exist is treated in such a “by the way” manner that it diminishes its role in the movie and undermines the credibility of the movie as a whole.

In the novel, Crichton takes the time to give a point-by-point explanation of the machine and the science that governs it—the idea of faxing a copy of a person back in time is absolutely brilliant. In the movie, however, that concept is only hinted at and the writers, instead, have chosen to use a wormhole attuned to 1357 as the conduit for transportation to the past. Since the method of time travel is vague and confusing, it’s hard to buy into anything that happens in the past, and that’s the major problem with
Timeline. With the complexity of the science involved and a larger ensemble of characters to develop, this is probably one Crichton novel that shouldn’t have been translated into a movie. I suppose time will tell.

Rating: 2 1/2

The Haunted Mansion (PG)

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Directed by: Rob Minkoff
Starring: Eddie Murphy
November 2003

“Too Scary, Not Very Funny”


Based on the classic ride at Disneyland, The Haunted Mansion is a scare-fest that feels more like a glorified attraction than a movie. The scenes, symbols and inside gags from the ride are all here, but The Haunted Mansion seems more like a caricature of itself than a living, breathing entity.

The movie opens with overachieving real estate agent, Jim Evers (Eddie Murphy) visiting a mansion with his wife and two kids. They are met at the front door by a creepy butler named Ramsley, who promptly and unceremoniously escorts the family through the dusty, cobweb-ridden halls to meet his master. Master Gracey is a tortured soul, a shadowy figure who pines over the loss of his wife, Elizabeth, a woman who had a striking resemblance to Evers’ wife.

Things go south when Evers discovers Ramsley’s plot to unite Gracey and Evers’ wife in matrimony in order to break an age-old curse. Evers must brave flying instruments, a haunted graveyard and many other frightening things before he can attempt to thwart the butler’s sinister plan.

The Haunted Mansion is the third movie based on a Disneyland attraction, and is arguably the biggest disappointment of the lot. The trailer promises a light and comical joyride, but the actual movie is much darker in tone and isn’t all that funny. When it comes to jokes and humorous dialogue, there’s nothing fresh in Murphy’s repertoire; in fact, his one-liners come off like the donkey gags in Shrek.

The acting is appropriate in
The Haunted Mansion, especially the ubiquitous and nefarious Ramsley (Terence Stamp), and the pathos-inducing Master Gracey (Nathaniel Parker). The face in the crystal ball, Madame Leota (Jennifer Tilly), offers some much needed comic relief and she and Murphy’s character play off of each other quite well.

The special effects are top-notch—as would be expected from Disney—but they overshadow the story, stifle character development and suppress any human element in the story, save for the
Beauty and the Beast style storybook ending. In the final analysis, The Haunted Mansion is nothing more than a two-hour, live-action version of the Disneyland ride. In fact, the movie resembles the attraction so closely that after you leave the theater, you realize the thrills, chills and spills have been grossly artificial and that you’ve been taken for a ride.

Rating: 2

Freaky Friday (PG)

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Directed by: Mark Waters
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis
August 2003

“Modern Remake Lacks Heart”


As far as remakes go, this was an entertaining, if uninspired, effort. The main question that preoccupies the film isn’t whether or not Freaky Friday is better than the original, but why it was necessary to update it at all. The first Freaky Friday, with Barbara Harris and Jodi Foster was wildly entertaining and deserved the right to become a stand-alone classic. Music/hair/clothing styles have all changed over the years, but other than modern trappings, this new movie is virtually identical to its “groovy” predecessor.

The movie opens with the classic mother vs. daughter battle, which escalates at a Chinese restaurant. The Asian proprietor slips the arguing pair two fortune cookies, which magically switches the mother’s soul into the daughter’s body, and vice versa.

A lot of gags ensue the next day as the two women try to switch back (by running and slamming into each other), and when Annabel’s mother, Ellen, goes to school while Annabel embarks on a shopping spree with her mother’s credit cards. These fish-out-of-water scenes (like when Ellen dresses like her daughter and hitches a ride on a motorcycle, or when Annabel destroys the psyches of her mom’s mental patients), become the meat of the story, but it’s not until the two women make peace and show respect to each other that the farcial curse is finally broken and the film comes to a heart-warming climax.

There’s a lovely scene at the end of the film where Annabel thinks of Ellen’s happiness before her own, and gives her blessing to her mother’s union to her new stepfather (Mark Harmon). It’s the only point in the film that I emotionally connected with the characters and thought that, just perhaps, there really was a story amid the flowing fountain of fluff.

The acting in the movie was solid enough; Jamie Lee Curtis was convincing as the uptight, killjoy, Ellen, and Lindsey Lohan (
The Parent Trap) was pitch-perfect in her portrayal of a modern teenage girl who wages an emotional tug-of-war with her overbearing mother.

There’s no doubting that this new
Freaky Friday is a load of good, clean fun, which will introduce a new generation to this “trading places” tale. But, in the final analysis, the original had more charm than this modern update.

Rating: 2 1/2

Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (PG-13)

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Directed by: Jan de Bont
Starring: Angelina Jolie
July 2003

“Second Time Isn’t the Charm”


There’s an old saying: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” I’m ashamed to say, that for the second time, I fell for Tomb Raider’s alluring promise of a summer blockbuster that would thrill and entertain. The movie did neither.

The prize of great worth this time around is Pandora’s Box, which will reveal the origins of life on earth when opened. In a plot that mimics the other
Raiders with Harrison Ford, but has none of the panache of that action/adventure classic, Lara Croft seeks an amber orb that will reveal the location of the mysterious “Cradle of Life,” the resting place of the mystical Pandora’s Box.

As the story would demand, the orb falls into the wrong hands, but Croft recovers it and kicks the villain into a pool of acid. The only twist: her new hunk decides he wants to open Pandora’s Box, and ultimately, Croft has to kill him to prevent the history of the universe from being tampered with; she resists the urge to open the box, something the fabled Pandora couldn’t. What a hero that Lara Croft is!

As mentioned earlier, the plot is so contrived, that the movie almost becomes a parody of itself, treating myth as fact and creating its own reality in the process. The action sequences were a bit blasé, even when compared to the original
Tomb Raider, and most of the dialogue could have been delivered more expressively by cardboard stand-ups.

If there’s anything positive in the film, it’s that Croft’s outfits aren’t as skimpy and gratuitous as in the last film, and with the exception of a brief bedroom vignette,
Tomb Raider is a fairly clean movie; if not a bit graphic at times.

So, now the question is, “Will there be another
Tomb Raider, or will the franchise become just another archaeological oddity?”

Rating: 1 1/2

The League of Extraordinary Gentleman (PG-13)

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Directed by: Stephen Norrington
Starring: Sean Connery
July 2003

“More than Ordinary, Less than Extraordinary”


I’m just going to go ahead and admit it: I’m a sucker for this kind of movie. One of my favorite comedies of all time, Mystery Men, is another example (though radically different in theme and tone) of this “hodgepodge of heroes” concept. There’s just something about a team of misfits coming together and using their various talents to kick the bad guy’s butt that just really appeals to me.

A masked villain, know as the Phantom, and his cronies, have been wreaking havoc in England and other parts of Europe, employing a fleet of über-tanks, automatic rifles, armored suits and flame-throwers; all impressive weaponry for the late 1800’s. To defend Her Majesty’s homeland, a team of amazing individuals is assembled, lead by the redoubtable—if slightly doting—Allan Quatermain (Sean Connery). In addition to the hunter extraordinaire, the team is comprised of Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend), Mina “Vampiress” Harker (Peta Wilson), Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), the Invisible Man (Tony Curran), Tom Sawyer (Shane West) and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde (Jason Flemyng).

Once assembled, the team is immediately ambushed by the Phantom in Dr. Gray’s mansion. When met by overwhelming resistance by the League, the Phantom flees, and the chase is on. Aboard Captain Nemo’s submarine, Nautilus (one of the most creative elements in the film), we are allowed a glimpse into the minds of several characters, most notably, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde; a tortured figure that simultaneously produces fear and pathos in the viewer—he’s the most fully-realized character in the movie. After thwarting the Phantom’s plans to destroy Venice from below, the group discovers that the League is a sham and that Dr. Gray obtained blood samples from each member of the team on their voyage. The Phantom plans to clone the League and use their evil, alter egos to overthrow all of Europe. The real League arrive at a snow-covered island (the Invisible Man, who had stowed away aboard an enemy craft, leads the Nautilus to the villain’s lair), infiltrate the Phantom’s hidden facility (part factory, part lab), destroy their D.N.A. and polish off all the bad guys, but not before Quatermain is killed from a gun shot.

LXG is a solid hit, but it falls far short of a home run. The movie’s climax is heart stopping at times, but the wrap-up is contrived and utterly meaningless (unless the witch doctor raises Quatermain from the dead just in time for a sequel). Even with the disappointing dénouement, the biggest tragedy in the film is that it has so much unfulfilled potential. The depth and complexity of this alternate history, paired with fascinating characters and an overabundance of creativity should have amounted to a much finer end result. As things are, LXG is a summer popcorn flick that entertains, but fails to create a league of its own.

Rating: 2 1/2

Pirates of the Caribbean (PG-13)

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Directed by: Gore Verbinski
Starring: Johnny Depp
July 2003

“Slow to Sail, but Worth the Voyage”


You can almost smell cannon smoke, can almost feel the exhilaration of being in a sword duel and can almost feel the thrill of being on the open sea in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean. The key word here is “almost.” Pirates of the Caribbean is almost the swashbuckling adventure that you want it to be, but not quite. The plot takes a while to get out of the bay, and when it finally reaches open water, the few twists that exist in the script leave you with the feeling that you almost had a good time.

The movie opens with pirate Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) scheming to steal a ship, while simultaneously attempting to give the Red Coats the slip. He crosses blades with Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), a blacksmith apprentice, and son of a notorious pirate. Will, eager to leave the blacksmith shop and become a pirate, joins Jack after the two strike up a tenuous friendship. The pair of pirates steal a British ship and pursue the grossly-fabled and greatly-feared, Black Pearl—a pirate ship with sails that look like Swiss Cheese and swabbies that turn into skeletons when bathed in moonlight.

The skipper of the Pearl, Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), is in pursuit of the last piece of gold that came from Cortez’ cache. The curse that holds Barbossa and his crew in a pseudo-limbo state—neither living, nor dead—will be lifted when the last medallion, covered with the blood of a member of a certain pirate family, is returned to the chest. After several ship battles and several sword fights, it is discovered that Will, son of infamous Bootstrap Bill, is the only one that can break the curse. Barbossa’s bony men ambush a British ship, which only has a skeleton crew aboard and make short work of the Red Coats (bullets don’t kill skeletons). In a climactic moment, when Barbossa and Jack are locked in an epic duel, Will cuts his hand and tosses the blood-spattered gold piece into the brimming treasure chest and Jack shoots Barbossa with his gun. Barbossa falls over dead, and at that moment, the tide is turned on the ship, where Barbossa’s crew is swiftly defeated.

Pirates of the Caribbean succeeds on several levels; the art direction and costuming is superb. The effects are great, as would be expected, and the acting is very good. In fact, Johnny Depp’s performance is so superior as the nutty, quirky, shifty Jack Sparrow (that’s “Captain Jack Sparrow,” thank you), that it’s no stretch to say that the movie would have flopped without him. Depp infuses the flick with a certain degree of irreverence and levity that would have been sorely missed in his absence.

Thankfully, the film is devoid of any sayings or references that are out of time or place (I call them Disneyisms), which have been employed far too often in most modern Disney movies. On the whole, the dialogue if fairly true to the time period it represents and is consistently humorous.

Pirates of the Caribbean is fun, summer entertainment that should please a large audience, even if it fails to deliver the best story possible. I guess dead men aren’t the only ones who can’t tell tales.

Rating: 2 1/2

Bruce Almighty (PG-13)

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Directed by: Tom Shadyac
Starring: Jim Carrey
May 2003

“A Comedy That’s Heaven Sent”


What would you do if you were God for a week? This is the lofty question posed by the mildly irreverent, wildly entertaining Bruce Almighty. Bruce Nolan (Jim Carrey) is a disgruntled news reporter (the one who gets all of the boring human interest beats) who suffers one personal tragedy after the next. In one ill-fated day, Bruce looses his job, is beat up by a street gang, has a major fight with his girlfriend and wraps the front end of his car around a light post.

In an animated tantrum right out of the Carrey vault, Bruce takes out his frustrations on the Almighty, yelling at the sky such aspersions as, “the only one around here not doing his job is you.” Next day, Bruce is summoned to an abandoned factory and encounters God (Morgan Freeman), who gives Bruce His job. Bruce can do whatever he wants, but there is one catch: he can’t affect free will.

At first, Bruce takes devilish delight in paying back his enemies and using his newfound powers for personal gain, but he soon discovers that being God—even over a small section of Buffalo, New York—is a much bigger responsibility than he had previously imagined. In the end, Bruce surrenders to God’s will for his life and hands over the reins. Everything returns to normal; he gets his job and girlfriend back, but Bruce has gained a new perspective on life.

Though over-the-top in some instances, Carrey’s performance strikes an emotional chord in this film; he balances comedic silliness with some moments of genuine compassion and sympathy. Morgan Freeman is convincing in his portrayal of God (if not a little laissez faire), and Jennifer Aniston’s performance as Bruce’s girlfriend, Grace, serves as an anchor to the zany protagonist.

Bruce Almighty is a twist on It’s a Wonderful Life (a small clip of the classic movie even appears here), and presents a “what if” scenario that is quite engaging. What could have been a sacrilegious debacle is actually a faith-friendly flick in most respects and actually supports, rather than slams, a Judeo-Christian worldview. Bruce Almighty is a positive and entertaining movie experience; fun and faith affirming is a heavenly combo.

Rating: 2 1/2

Daredevil (PG-13)

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Directed by: Mark Steven Johnson
Starring: Ben Affleck
February 2003

The “devil” part is dead on—this character is no hero, seeking his own brand of justice and crossing the line (homicide) that other “true” heroes in the mold of Batman would never entertain, much less tolerate. Character development is as scant as Garner’s outfit and the fight scenes lacked emotional impact.

Rating: 1 1/2

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (PG-13)

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Directed by: Peter Jackson
Starring: Elijah Wood
December 2002

“Two Towers, Lots of Power”


The Two Towers
picks up right where The Fellowship of the Ring left off—in high gear. Like its predecessor, The Two Towers succeeds on virtually every level and will undoubtedly receive another dozen, or so, Oscar nods. But is it as good as the first?

This middle chapter of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel trilogy and Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy is somewhat darker than The Fellowship of the Ring, but still retains the nobler, more human, aspects of this epic tale. The Two Towers takes more liberties with the original text than did The Fellowship of the Ring, but it’s difficult to take issue with any of the changes because they’re either creative additions of logical extensions of Tolkien’s cannon.

All of the original cast is back plus a few new faces: Bernard Hill as Theoden, Brad Dourif as Grima Wormtongue, Karl Urban as Eomer, Miranda Otto as Eowyn and Andy Serkis as Gollum, just to name a few.

The movie gracefully bounces back and forth between three storylines: Frodo and Sam’s journey to Mordor, Merry and Pippin’s adventures in the company of Orcs and Ents, and Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli’s pursuit of Merry and Pippin and their valiant efforts in the Battle of Helm’s Deep.

Emerging from the Shadow, Gandalf the White returns in messianic glory, but blends into the scenery a bit too much this time around.

Andy Serkis is brilliant as Gollum, painting every hue in the poor creature’s bipolar existence while simultaneously producing pathos and loathing in the hobbits, as well as the audience. The computer rendering of Gollum is frightening in its realism and clarity—especially around the eyes—and slaughters any previous C.G. character…even Jar Jar. The Ents were another wonderful C.G.I. creation that played a pivotal role in the film: the sacking of Isengard and Saruman’s comeuppance.

The Battle of Helm’s Deep, though tweaked from Tolkien’s original, still embodies the same dread and anxiety, and is simply one of the most visceral and heroic battle scenes ever committed to film. The climax, involving the Black Rider in Osgiliath (both elements, again, a departure from the master’s page) solidifies three things: Faramir’s vulnerability to the enticements of the ring (like his brother, Boromir), Sam’s continued, undying devotion to Frodo and Frodo’s sheer mental exhaustion from bearing the ring.

So, back to an earlier question, is The Two Towers as good as The Fellowship of the Ring? No. But if all sequels were this good, I’d make my permanent residence in a movie theater.

Rating: 3 1/2

Spider-Man (PG-13)

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Directed by: Sam Raimi
Starring: Tobey Maguire
May 2002

This is a comic adaptation that delivered. What makes
Spider-Man work is its humanness. McGuire plays the title role to perfection and connects the audience to the human aspects of this super-human character. The “origin” plot was much more interesting to me than the predictable ending, however.

Rating: 3

E.T. The Extra Terrestrial - 20th Anniversary Edition (PG)

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Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Henry Thomas

March 2002

How could I not give this movie a multitude of stars? The new scenes, though few, are nifty, and it was nice to see an innocent Drew Barrymore again; but truthfully, E.T. never did anything for me emotionally. Perhaps it’s because I first saw it when I was 29 (I know, I was born under a rock).

Rating: 3 1/2

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (PG-13)

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Directed by: Peter Jackson
Starring: Elijah Wood
December 2001

Enchanting. Spellbinding. This is simply one of the most amazing, moving and magical movies I’ve ever seen.
The Fellowship of the Ring excels in every category (acting, directing, music, etc.) and leaves you craving a sequel. My vote for movie of the year.

Rating: 4

Jurassic Park III (PG-13)

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Directed by: Joe Johnston
Starring: Sam Neill
July 2001

Great special effects, good directing, fair acting, weak plot and poor character development equals a mediocre sequel.
Jurassic Park III is a T-Rex leap better than the previous film, The Lost World, and yet it didn't make me jump. Nothing new here.

Rating: 2 1/2

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (PG-13)

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Directed by: Simon West
Starring: Angelina Jolie
June 2001

The problem with so many modern movies? Great special effects mated with anemic plots. This movie is no exception, and adds bad taste to the mix; gratuitous scenes reveal the true star of the movie...Jolie's physique.

Rating: 1 1/2