Reel Opinions

Friday, May 26, 2006

X-Men: The Last Stand

As far as comic book adaptations go, the X-Men film franchise has always taken a back seat to the much more enjoyable Spider-Man entries and last summer's successful revival of Batman. I've mainly viewed the films as entertaining, yet unfulfilling, due to the filmmakers' insistence on cramming too many heroes and villains into a two hour or so running time. Even under the helm of a new director (Brett Ratner of Rush Hour and Red Dragon fame), the latest installment, X-Men: The Last Stand, all but proves my belief that the films are populated by more characters than the story can handle. This is even more apparent since this one is slightly shorter and leaner than previous entries. That's not to say the film isn't fun, as there is certainly some well done and entertaining action sequences. But looking back on the whole experience, I seem to think of The Last Stand as less of a movie, and more of a "Mutants on Parade", giving the special effects and make up artists a golden chance to go nuts at the expense of character development and emotion.

When a major pharmaceutical company develops a "cure" for genetic mutations, the mutants who inhabit the world amongst the humans become divided. On the side of good we've got the X-Men, led by Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who want to improve the relations between humans and mutants. On the opposite side, we've got the Brotherhood, a band of rebellious mutants led by the powerful terrorist Magneto (Ian McKellen) who believe that humans are inferior to their kind. The invention of the cure, and the extreme methods that the Government goes about establishing it, almost forcing it upon all mutants, tears the divide even wider, and gives Magneto an ample opportunity to expand his army and unite them against the human race and destroy those who wish to "cure" them. With the lines of battle drawn, veteran X-Men Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Storm (Halle Berry) will have to prepare some of Xavier's youngest students for what could be the final and ultimate battle that decides the fate of both mutants and humans. In a parallel subplot, one of Xavier's followers, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) has returned after supposedly falling in battle in the last film, but seems to be struggling with a dual personality and a great power that has gone out of control.

X-Men: The Last Stand pretty much hits the same notes that audiences have come to expect from the previous entries. There's lots of talk about equality, racism, prejudice, and other hot button topics that are placed under the disguise of a superhero summer blockbuster movie. There's also lots of fast-paced action, lots of stunts, and lots and lots of mutants - more so than in the earlier films I think. The film combs the rich history of the comic book and brings some fan favorites to life including the intellectual Beast (Kelsey Grammer) and the unstoppable supervillain Juggernaut, who in this movie bears a striking resemblance to an old He-Man toy I once owned named Ram-Man. That's merely the tip of the iceberg, as the film is filled with literally a cast of thousands. Of course, this being a movie that barely stretches past 100-minutes, there's hardly any time for us to get to know even a small majority of them. The movie seems to be frantically trying to please every comic book fanboy in the audience, giving each mutant - good or evil - a split second to shine by showing off their power before it moves onto the next cameo. Many of the characters are so underdeveloped that potentially powerful or dramatic scenes fall flat on their face. The brief reunion between Cyclops (James Marsden) and his love Jean Grey should be a touching and moving moment, but the scene is handled clumsily, and those who have not seen the earlier films will probably wonder what the heck just happened. The most glaring example of the screenplay's lack of character is that of a mutant called Angel, who is actually the son of the man who invented the cure, and was the inspiration for his father looking for a cure in the first place. The movie does not bother to develop the relationship between father and son even once, and the character of Angel has very little dialogue, opting instead to mainly just fly around with the wings on his back in almost every scene he's in instead of actually doing anything. It just seems like because of the movie's desire to hit so many story points in such a short amount of time, the characters suffer, and don't become half as memorable as they possibly could have been.

When the movie's not speeding along, giving us mutants galore, the film works thanks to a slightly more intelligent tone than one would expect in a summer blockbuster. As mentioned before, its talk of mutant and human relations are really thinly veiled messages on controversial topics, and the screenplay handles these scenes in a thoughtful manner that does not get preachy or overbearing. But, with this being a summer movie, most folks are not going to care about that - they're going to care about the action. Thankfully, The Last Stand delivers in this regard. Even though it takes quite a while to get to some of the big event scenes, they are well worth the wait, the highlights including Magneto using his power to manipulate the Golden Gate Bridge, and the complex climactic battle which manages to juggle its large cast of characters more successfully than almost the entire rest of the movie up to that point. The movie can thrill when it wants to, and Brett Ratner does a good job of following in the footsteps of the original director, Bryan Singer. His look and style is faithful to the tone set up in the previous two movies, so it looks like a natural succession from the last installment to this. The film also takes some daring risks in its storytelling, something that may not sit well with fans of the original comic books, but does help add some much needed tension to the proceedings. If the characterizations had been just as strong as the more action-heavy moments, this could have been the first summer blockbuster of the year that really and truly worked for me. As it is, X-Men works most of the time, but not enough for it to truly be memorable.

At least we've got some enjoyable performances to enjoy here, even if they seem a bit held back by the film's rushed pace. The returning cast slide easily back into their roles, even if quite a few of them have a lot less to do than in previous installments including Anna Paquin, James Marsden, and Rebecca Romijn. Halle Berry's Storm character gets a larger role this time around due to contract obligations, yet still comes across as being highly uncharismatic, especially when compared to Jackman's Wolverine, who unfortunately plays a slightly lesser role in the story than in the past. Standing out in the returning cast is Famke Janssen, who gets to do something radically different with her character, and is able to bring the right amount of confusion, terror, and viciousness that she needs this time around. Of the new cast, the only one able to make any sort of impression is Beast. Kelsey Grammer's dry wit, charm, and intelligence is a perfect live action realization of the character, and the make up work which requires him to be covered head to foot in a blue furry costume works extremely well and does not seem out of place or silly. The real stars, as always, are Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as the former best friends turned rivals with differing views on how mutants should fit into the world. Every scene they're in, especially the scenes where they're together, immediately grabs your attention. You almost wish the movie would stop giving us new mutants, and just concentrate on these two, as their performances are so commanding and full of screen presence that you can't take your eyes off of.

In the months leading up to its release, X-Men: The Last Stand has taken quite a beating on the Internet from fanboys unhappy with the direction this film was going to take the franchise. I'm happy to report that despite its obvious flaws in characterization, it's not that bad. The movie just bites off more than it can chew and winds up paying a price, though not one strong enough to make me regret seeing it. Perhaps there never can be a truly perfect X-Men movie, as the history of the comic involves too many characters and too many storylines. (The roster of the X-Men is constantly changing in the comic, so it must be hard for the filmmakers to decide which characters to focus on in each installment.) According to Fox, this is to be the final X-Men movie before they move onto individual spinoff films on certain popular characters like Wolverine. Of course, as we all know, box office can change a studio's mind. After all, 1984's Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter was far from "final". Judging by this movie's ending, I wouldn't be surprised if we see the X-Men return for a fourth installment. As long as they could tighten the script a bit more, I'd be all for it.

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Monday, May 22, 2006

See No Evil

Paying money to see See No Evil is a lot like paying someone to stand in front of you and throw mud, gunk, dirt, and slime in your face for 80 minutes straight. This debut film from the WWE's new film division is an effort to bring back the fun of early 80s schlocky teen slasher films. An admirable feat to be sure, and one I probably could get behind if director Gregory Dark (a former porn filmmaker trying to go straight) knew how to add a bit of cheesy fun to the gore and the splatter. Well, okay, that's a bit unfair. Being a critic who stresses honest opinion on film, I must admit there are a few gore scenes that left me with a goofy grin on my face. But they are too far between and surrounded by a ludicrous plot (even by slasher film standards) that concerns a lumbering man child who likes to rip out people's eyes in order to cleanse the world from sinners. Yes, folks, See No Evil is kind of like a twisted Christian remake of Friday the 13th. Try to imagine the hockey masked Jason Voorhees finding religion and going around killing anyone who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior, and you won't be too far off as to what this movie has to offer.

The paper-thin plot centers around a massive and oddly named serial killer called Jacob Goodnight (played by Professional Wrestler Kane). He's a hulking brute who was raised by a psychotically religious mother, so now he goes around removing "sinners" from the world. In the film's prologue sequence, a pair of cops stage a bust on Jacob's home while he's in the process of torturing a woman. One of the cops gets hacked with an ax, and the other (Steven Vidler) loses an arm, but still manages to get a shot in on the madman, causing the psycho to go on the run. He apparently eluded capture, as the film then flashes forward four years later, and the cop who survived now has a wooden arm, and is currently making a living watching over troubled youth at the local Juvenile Prison. A small group of eight troubled teens have been given a chance to shorten their sentences if they participate in a clean up project of an abandoned old hotel that's set to be transformed into a homeless shelter. Our group is made up of your standard teen types that you see in these kind of movies including the stuck up blonde, the jerk, the geek, the tough-talking black guy, the good girl, etc. The teens get to work, but only for about five minutes, then they start wandering off so they can have sex and do drugs without the adult guardians knowing. No surprise that this abandoned old building is the very place that Jacob Goodnight has been making his hideout for the past couple years, and these troubled teens who have not found religion really tick the big schmuck off.

And so the blood and carnage begins. Jacob is armed with a giant hook attached to a chain, his own brute strength, a swarm of flies that follow him everywhere he goes for reasons unexplained by the screenplay, and the I.Q. of a 10-year old who has just discovered that it's fun to torture people. The teens and most of the adults are picked off one by one until there's just a small group left for the final showdown. If you're worried that I'm revealing too much about the movie, don't be, there's not much to reveal. After the teens sneak away from the adults and start having sex and sticking their noses in places they shouldn't, the movie becomes an endless series of gore scenes where one of the kids meets their end at the hands of the simple-minded maniac. This is to be expected in a movie of its kind, so I can forgive it. What I cannot forgive is the movie's near ineptitude of coming up with some creative kills. All slasher movies are judged solely on their death scenes, and aside from a couple standouts, See No Evil keeps on playing the same song over and over again. The flies start buzzing around the victim, Jacob Goodnight appears from out of nowhere or smashes through a wall or mirror "unexpectedly", he plants his giant hook in them, then drags them away. Maybe it's kind of fun the first time it happens, but then it does the same thing another four or five more times. Fortunately, the movie starts to get a bit more creative near the end, including one with a girl dying because Jacob shoves a ringing cell phone down her throat, and another animal-loving girl who is eaten alive by a pack of wild dogs. Aside from these rare standouts, See No Evil just does not offer a large variety of kills, and starts to become repetitive long before it's time for the final battle.

Fortunately, there are quite a couple unintentional laughs that can keep a viewer somewhat entertained if they are in the right mind set. I love the fact that about halfway through the movie, one of the characters falls to their death and smashes through the glass ceiling of another part of the hotel. Later on in the film, a second character takes the same plunge, only it appears the ceiling has magically repaired itself sometime between the two deaths, so that it can once again be smashed to pieces when the second character dives through. There is also quite an awkward scene near the end where Jacob is shot in the head, only to reveal a swarm of maggots and bugs crawling out of his head through the open hole. So, what, he's a zombie or something? The movie doesn't bother to explain. I guess we'll have to wait for the explanation when he comes back in the inevitable direct-to-video sequel. All the entertaining plot holes in the world, however, can't cover the fact that there's just not a lot of fun to be had here, even for the diehard gore fans. The movie fails to be even the least bit scary, and just can't quite capture the goofy fun of the best slasher films. It's nothing but idiot teens running down dark, muddy, and murky hallways with a Professional Wrestler in hot pursuit. Combine that with the fact that the characters are not really characters at all, just walking bags of meat waiting to be sliced open by the madman, and you'll quickly find yourself growing bored. To its credit, the movie does seem to breeze by in a blink of an eye, so the boredom of watching this film does not linger for long.

As is to be expected in a slasher movie produced by a Professional Wrestling film division and directed by a former porn filmmaker, there's not a lot to interest in terms of performances or technical aspects. The best thing I can say about the teens is that none of their performances flat out annoyed me, and the ones who annoyed me a little bit at least met their ends pretty quickly. As for Kane, despite the fact that he gets top billing above the title, he has very little to do here but grunt, groan, and look pissed off or confused. He's dreaming if he thinks he's going to match the lofty heights of master thespian Hulk Hogan with material like this. Kane will need a Mr. Nanny or a Suburban Commando if he ever wants me to take him seriously as an actor. Director Gregory Dark seems to have mainly been influenced by music videos with his look for this film. There's a lot of quick zoom in shots and rapid fire editing tricks, but it's all a lot of style for no reason whatsoever. And I don't know who had the bright idea to set some of the key scenes of the film to the song "Jesus Loves the Little Children" played on a continuous and seemingly-endless loop, but I want to personally punch them in the face. If you don't already hate the song, you will after watching this movie. I know, it's a "religious" horror movie and all, but it still comes across as overkill.

Weird as it may sound, I really wanted to like this movie. Cheesy 80s slasher movies will always hold a special place in my heart, and I really wanted to embrace this movie as the guilty pleasure it obviously strived to be. But, See No Evil simply offers no thrills, no fun, and very little bang for the gorehound's buck. Even if you look at the movie as the piece of cinematic cheese that it is it still falls apart. Still, I do have a slight admiration for the filmmakers' effort. It takes a lot of balls to try to revive a long-dead horror genre, and they do at least seem to be on to something in this regard from time to time. You can probably tell by reading this review if you're right for this movie. Even if you are, I highly suggest you wait for the DVD, as I'm sure it will be better with friends, pizza, and beverages. Most things are after all.

Before I close this review, I just want to personally apologize for the lack of variety in the screenshots. The sites I usually grab images from did not offer a very large variety, so I hope you like photos of pissed off bald men. (And who doesn't?)

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Saturday, May 20, 2006

Over the Hedge

Despite being safely secured in the number two position behind Pixar when it comes to CG animated films, Dreamworks' animation division does not get a lot of love from film fans. Sure, lots of people love the Shrek films, but beyond that, their films are either viewed as shallow pieces of pop culture entertainment (Shark Tale), or wrongheaded attempts to mimic the Disney formula, focusing too much on big-name talent and not enough on the story being told (um...Shark Tale). Over the Hedge offers a glimmer of hope that maybe someone at the studio is listening. Consistently funny and entertaining, complete with a heartfelt message at its core, this is the one that animation fans have been waiting all year for. It may not be enough to push the studio to the top of the heap, but it is the first animated release this year that actually stayed with me after walking out of the theater. That's more than I can say for the crummy Hoodwinked or the mediocre The Wild.

Based on the long-running newspaper comic strip, the film tells the story of a fast-talking raccoon named R.J. (voice by Bruce Willis), who finds himself in a life or death situation when he winds up destroying a hibernating bear's stash of junk food after his attempt to swipe a snack from the grizzly goes horribly wrong. The bear (whose growling voice is provided with appropriate gusto and viciousness by Nick Nolte) is understandably not happy, and offers R.J. an offer he literally can't refuse - restock his entire cave with food in one week or die. The raccoon laments over his soon-to-be-sealed fate, wondering how he will gather such a large amount of food in such a short time until he comes across a newly developed suburban community, complete with ignorant humans who live to stuff their faces with food. Even better, he comes across a small group of animals who have just awakened from winter hibernation, only to find most of their forest home gone and replaced by the terrifying and strange human community. The group of animals, led by soft-spoken turtle Verne (Garry Shandling) are not sure what to make of this new world they have awakened to. Fortunately, R.J. is here to befriend them and show them the ropes of dealing with humans. Of course, he's just using them to help swipe food from the community so he can save his own skin. What none of the animals realize is that their presence is already starting to be known by the humans, and they have called upon a vicious exterminator (Thomas Hayden Church) to take care of the sudden rodent problem.

Though its plot may be slight, Over the Hedge overcomes this obstacle by bringing together a likeably offbeat group of animal characters, all of whom would probably be worthy enough to star in their own animated film. Besides R.J. and Verne, the other animals who find themselves having to adapt to humanity include the child-like hyperactive squirrel Hammy (Steve Carell), no-nonsense skunk Stella (Wanda Sykes), a family of porcupines led by a mother and father who talk like they just walked right off the set of the Coen Brothers' Fargo (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara), and a father and teenage daughter possum couple who specialize in playing dead whenever trouble strikes, even if the daughter finds the act extremely humiliating. (William Shatner and singer Avril Lavigne). These are not the soulless comic relief sidekicks that plague so many other lesser animated films. They have genuine emotions, they are fairly developed considering the brief 85-minute running time, and they are actual characters with real fears and concerns. In a wise move, the creative staff behind this film have steered clear of the usual Dreamworks formula of stuffing the film to the brim with pop culture references and rapid-fire gags, and have instead crafted a story where the humor grows from the characters, the dialogue, and their relationships with one another. It's rare to find these things in an animated movie, or even a live action one, and the fact that Over the Hedge manages to do all of this so well makes it special.

As is to be expected, the animation is pleasing to the eye, with a strong artstyle that skillfully mixes realistic backgrounds with more cartoon-based character designs. The characters mesh well with their surroundings and never seem out of place of awkward. There are a number of little details I noticed in this movie that I enjoyed, such as the way the animal fur reacts appropriately to the action that the character is currently involved in, all the way to the clever and funny reaction shots and facial expressions of the animal characters. They're human enough for audiences to be able to relate to them, but they do not act like people trapped in furry costumes. They don't go around quoting popular movies or music (except for a pampered house cat who apparently once watched A Streetcar Named Desire with his human owner), and they are not one-liner machines who spout off quick wit at a moment's notice. Verne and his "family" are lost and confused, and R.J. slowly begins to accept and feel accepted by the very people he is trying to swindle. These are the characters we're supposed to relate to, while the human characters are kept appropriately underdeveloped, so that they seem just as alien and foreign to us as they do to the animals that have found themselves forced into this strange new world of SUVs and hi-definition TVs. I don't want to give the impression that the film is entirely serious, as there are plenty of moments that will have kids laughing, and the accompanying adults as well. The way that Hammy the Squirrel winds up saving the day is one of the best visual gags I've seen in a movie in quite a while.

This being an animated film, the voice acting is key in bringing the characters to life. Fortunately, Over the Hedge has rounded up a top-flight cast. Bruce Willis (stepping in for Jim Carrey, who was originally given the role of R.J.) and Garry Shandling have a fitting odd couple relationship and play well off of each other. Steve Carell proves that his shining role in last year's 40-Year Old Virgin was no fluke, and that he's more than capable of carrying a comedy, even an animated one, and gets some of the biggest laughs in the film. I was also surprised by the surprisingly honest performance by young singer Avril Lavigne, especially considering that this is her first film role. She has a likeable voice and personality that pretty much makes you forget that she's a singer who's dabbling in acting. The voices fit each individual character to a tee, and they are even able to make us care about them. Even Eugene Levy, an actor whose very presence almost seems to guarantee the film's going to be a dud in my eyes, did very little to annoy me.

There's very little to find fault with Over the Hedge, even if the accompanying soundtrack by recording artist Ben Folds is mostly immediately forgettable. It's a wonderful little film filled with wonderful characters, and is certain to entertain. It may not be remembered as a classic such as the Toy Story films, but it has a lot more heart than just about any other animated feature I can think of this year. There's a lot to like here, and if you can make your way past the world-shattering hype surrounding the bloated and dull Da Vinci Code, I think you'll find that Over the Hedge is well worth your time. I don't say this very often, but when it was over, I thought to myself it'd be nice to see more of these characters. They're just too good to be confined to a single movie.

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Friday, May 19, 2006

The Da Vinci Code

Having never read Dan Brown's insanely popular novel that inspired this film, I was not sure what to expect walking into The Da Vinci Code. I of course knew the basic plot and premise, and the controversy surrounding it. How could I not when just about every TV program the past month aside from Saturday Morning cartoons has dealt with the controversy? So, I walked into the movie with a fresh mind, ready to discover just what all the excitement about. Walking out of the theater, I was not thinking about the countless questions the movie asks, nor about how the movie pretty much flies against everything Christianity stands for. All I could think about was how could a movie tackle such tricky and fascinating questions and end up being so boring? The Da Vinci Code is a butt-numbingly endless, talky, and repetitive slog through endless religious mysteries, double crosses, and one shady character after another, including an evil Albino. Director Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman have crafted a ludicrous and strangely lifeless mystery that is less a test of the viewer's opinion on religion, and more a test of the viewer's patience.

The action (so to speak) begins when the curator of the Louvre museum is found dead with various symbols carved into his body and mysterious and cryptic messages left behind on the ground. Symbols expert Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is called in by the French police to decode the messages left behind. He meets up with Police Captain Fache (Jean Reno) and young cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) at the crime scene, and quickly discovers that things are not what they seem. Sophie secretly reveals that she is the estranged granddaughter of the murder victim, and that Robert is being set up by the police to become the prime suspect. The two manage to escape, and begin a lengthy quest for the truth behind the riddles left behind on the museum floor. The quest will lead them to uncover a secret religious war that has been held for centuries that, if uncovered, could blow the lid off of Christianity's core beliefs.

The deeper the two delve into the mystery, the more it appears that things are not what they seem. Betrayals are set, lines are double crossed, more murders start popping up in an attempt to stop them from discovering the truth, and a crazed Albino (Paul Bettany) is constantly tailing after them trying to put an early end to their search. The movie throws so many characters, plot twists, and flashbacks (both personal and historical) at us that it almost feels like the story is going in all sorts of directions and can't decide which way it wants to end up. Da Vinci seems to delight in pulling the rug out from under us, and seems to be in love with its own plot twists. But it's not really as clever as it seems to think it is. The screenplay is just nothing but a series of double crosses, one after another, so we start expecting them after awhile. With one-dimensional boring characters, and an overly talky screenplay, The Da Vinci Code quickly becomes a chore to sit through. The fact that the movie runs at an overlong two and a half hours doesn't help matters.

Even having never read the original source material, I have a hunch that this film is slavishly faithful to the book due to the fact that there are way too many exposition-heavy scenes where the characters simply sit there and spell out the plot. What works on the written page does not always work on the big screen. In adapting the novel to the big screen, writer Akiva Goldsman was obviously under pressure not to disappoint the legions of fans, so he seems to have literally copied the dialogue word for word. This leads to countless scenes that go on for way too long. I can picture them working in a novel, lying on a cozy couch, and letting the words sink in. But sitting in a stiff cineplex seat watching highly paid actors recite the dialogue in a strangely wooden and unemotional manner is an entirely different matter all together. Director Ron Howard tries to spice things up with "visual aids" that mainly come in the form of flashbacks that act out what the characters are talking about. But, he relies on this technique way too often that it almost becomes comical by the end. I don't remember a movie having this many flashbacks, and it gets to the point that it seems like the characters in the flashbacks are having flashbacks. It'd help if maybe the story being told was interesting, but despite its talk of religious wars and a quest for the true Holy Grail, the plot never quite seems to truly engage or grab our attention.

The Da Vinci Code mainly falters due to its own tone and pacing. For a movie that's supposed to be about blowing the top off of the basis of Christianity, the tone is strangely laid back and lethargic. Despite being constantly on the run, and their lives being in danger, we never get a sense that Robert and Sophie are ever in any danger. The movie ruins its own surprises by revealing the whereabouts of its villains at just about every turn, so we are always one step ahead of the heroes, and know exactly when they are going to be in danger. Not only does this kill what little amount of suspense the story could actually generate, but it also seems pointless when the movie tries to "surprise" us by the sudden arrival of a "hidden" character. The movie tries to keep things interesting with some action sequences scattered throughout, but they are either ludicrous beyond belief (a backwards car chase through the streets of Paris), or they are so short that they seem to be over the very moment they begin.

I would have no problem with the movie being a character-driven mystery if the characters themselves were actually interesting. Unfortunately, none of the characters except for one made any sort of impression on me. The characters seem interchangeable at times, as there's very little to distinguish Robert from Sophie, other than the fact that Sophie has this very ugly looking black mole on her neck that I couldn't stop staring at. The performances, in turn, are equally bland and colorless because the actors are too busy explaining the plot to develop any sort of personality. Even Tom Hanks seems strangely wooden and lacking in any sort of personality in his portrayal. The one and only character and performance that livens things up is Ian McKellan as a Grail scholar and long time friend of Robert. Not only is his character the only one who possesses a personality and (Heaven forbid) a sense of humor, but the performance by McKellan is equally lively and fun. He seems to be enjoying himself, something that everyone else is not, judging by their overly serious and expressionless faces that they are forced to hold throughout the film's entire running time. Unfortunately, he only appears during the middle portion of the movie. Once he's gone, the film goes right back into its previous pattern of lifeless characters and endless exposition dialogue.

Aside from the performances, everything else is top notch in terms of production values. The film has an attractive look, makes good use of its far away locales, and always seems to be hinting at something big is about to happen. Da Vinci is good at setting up the idea of suspense and that something is going to happen, only to fail to deliver on any sort of tension or action. Needlessly talky and overly complicated, The Da Vinci Code ends up just being a jumbled mess that is almost certain to annoy anyone who is not a rabid fan of the novel. As for the whole controversy aspect, I personally see it as much ado about nothing. The movie is blatantly a work of fiction, and the story treats its own theories as simply a jumping point for an increasingly ludicrous adventure story where the heroes make narrow escapes and seem to be able to crack centuries-old riddles and mysteries in a matter of seconds. Its theories on Christianity is simply a plot point and a series of ideas. It never once claims them to be fact. I guess there are some people who are all too willing to believe what they read. As for me, I simply believe that The Da Vinci Code is a lot of hype and smoke and mirrors hiding a forgettable story.

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Saturday, May 13, 2006

Just My Luck

I'd like to open this review with a little advice to film star, Lindsay Lohan. If you're going to try to advance to more adult roles, try to find adult roles that actually act like adults. Her character in Just My Luck, a worthless and lamebrained romantic comedy, is a spoiled, hateful, and obnoxious woman who acts less like a career woman and more like those spoiled teenage princesses covered in that awful MTV "reality" show Sweet 16. For those of you fortunate enough to have never laid eyes on that show, each episode follows a different spoiled teenage "princess" as she plans her multi-million dollar 16th birthday party, and complain because daddy didn't get her the right Ferrari for her present. I can hardly stand to watch these girls for a half hour, why did anyone think I'd want to watch a movie about one of them? This is supposed to be a morality tale where said spoiled girl learns the hard way how the other half lives, but since she seems to have learned absolutely nothing by the end, I just have to question what director Donald Petrie (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days) was trying to say with this movie, other than Lindsay Lohan and physical slapstick comedy don't mix.

The film's opening sequence introduces us to two completely different people. On one end, there's Ashley Albright (Lindsay Lohan) - a charmless spoiled brat of a woman who seems to be able to get everything she wants thanks to her incredible luck. With a recent job promotion and her two shallow best friends (Samaire Armstrong and Bree Turner) constantly swooning over her ability to get any man or thing she wants, Ashley seems to be on top of the world. The other end is inhabited by Jake Hardin (Chris Pine) - a hopeless schmuck of a loser who cleans toilets at a bowling alley for a living, can't seem to catch a break, and is in danger of losing his one ticket out of his bleak existence - managing a rising British band. Fate steps in when the two meet at a masquerade party thrown by Ashley. They share a dance, kiss, and due to some unexplained cosmic force, their luck is immediately switched. Ashley gets Jake's constant bad luck, and Jake gets Ashley's perfect luck.

What follows is a series of sub-sitcom level slapstick situations as Ashley slowly loses everything, and is practically reduced to living on the streets. (Of course, total poverty and depression is uproarious when you keep on getting stuck in comedic situations that play out like outtakes from a bad episode of I Love Lucy.) Jake, on the other hand, instantly finds his music management career on the rise after he saves the life of a powerful music mogul, and is instantly given a New York penthouse and a full recording contract for his band based solely on his actions. (Uh-huh...) Ashley is eventually able to figure out that the kiss she shared with the masked stranger is what changed her life around, and so she begins a desperate search. This being a moronic romantic comedy, it's never that easy, and the characters are forced to act like total idiots in accordance to the unwritten law of the "Idiot Plot" to make sure the movie runs torturously long (In this case, just under two hours.) when the problem could be solved in a mere matter of minutes.

As a concept, Just My Luck maybe could have been cute if the movie was actually trying to say something, but the screenplay by I. Marlene King and Amy B. Harris treats the situation like a failed pilot for a youth sitcom on the WB Network. As soon as Ashley's luck changes for the worst, it stops treating her as a character, and instead makes her out to be an idiotic foil who walks into all-too predictable slapstick traps that you can see coming from a mile away. She keeps on moaning about her bad luck, but I couldn't help but think that maybe if she wouldn't willingly electrocute herself, or just didn't turn on that washing machine after she knowingly dumped almost an entire box of detergent in, things would work out better for her. It's not that she's unlucky, it's just that she's a total idiot. The movie keeps on throwing her in a series of unlikely and increasingly ludicrous situations for the sake of humiliating her in an effort to make us sympathize with her plight of getting her luck back, but all it makes us do is despise her even more, because she's too much of a brainless dolt to realize what she's walking into in scene after scene. I'm sorry, I just find it hard to root for a girl who does not have the common sense to avoid exposing a flaming electric hair dryer that is still plugged in to water.

As Lohan's character is constantly pummeled and humiliated by her own stupidity, the character of Jake gets his dream life, and immediately is forgotten by the screenplay until it's his time to have a cute meeting with Ashley. The last time we see Jake, he's overly made up to look like the saddest excuse for a loser in a vain attempt to cover up actor Chris Pine's bland Hollywood pretty boy qualities. Then, when he's reintroduced to us, he's suddenly been made over to a guy to make all the teenage girls in the audience swoon. His overnight change from a guy who looks like he takes fashion tips from Rick Moranis' character in Little Shop of Horrors to Hollywood dreamboat is unexplained, but no matter. Ashley and Jake fall in love, even though there's absolutely no visible chemistry between the characters. Ashley's a hateful spoiled idiot, and Jake is a depressing schmuck. Who wouldn't pay full theater price to see people like these fall in love? Just My Luck falls flat on its face because it gives us absolutely nothing to be interested in and no one to relate to. The movie is so jam-packed with unlikeable one-note characters that it almost seems to be some kind of vicious smear campaign targeted at all the actors involved with this mess.

Judging by everything I've said up to now, you've probably figured out that the performances are not exactly able to lift the film up out of the gutter it digs for itself. Lohan and Pine bring absolutely zero personality, charm, and life to their characters that it almost comes across as a blessing that they spend such precious little screen time together in the movie. She is forced to talk in this constant whiny tone that quickly becomes irritating, and he has all the personality of the dust balls that form under your refrigerator. The rest of the cast don't hold up much better, only because they're pretty much forced to display one single emotion throughout the entire film. None of these people are people I would be interested in talking to, or even share a bus seat with. Not one single performance is able to shine through the muck of this movie, so it becomes a depressingly deadweight excuse for a lighthearted comedy.

I'm straining my brain to think of anything positive I can say about Just My Luck, but nothing's really coming to mind at the moment. The movie is just such an ill-conceived and poorly executed pile that it makes you wonder who in their right mind thought it would work in the first place. This is a cinematic dead zone from which no hope or laughter can escape. There's no luck to be found here, I'm afraid. The real lucky ones are those who use their time finding something better to do than watching this pathetic comedy.

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Friday, May 12, 2006


If I had to sum up my reaction to the latest big budget remake to hit the screen, Poseidon, it would be "I didn't have to see it, but I don't regret doing so". Director Wolfgang Peterson (The Perfect Storm, Troy) may have updated the story, but he certainly stays true to its 70s disaster movie roots. The film is all about the special effects and set pieces, and at that, the movie is a rousing success for the most part. The movie is really nothing more than a series of action set pieces, and though it comes torturously close to becoming monotonous, everything moves at such a brisk pace that you almost don't have time to complain. Much like last week's Mission: Impossible III, Poseidon is a frivolous little piece of summer entertainment that is likely to be forgotten the second the end credits start up.

As the passengers and crew on the luxury cruise liner Poseidon celebrate the New Year, the ship is suddenly struck by a rogue wave that tilts the massive vessel upside down. The remainder of the film follows a small band of survivors who leave the supposed safety of the ship's ballroom, so they can find their way upward through the wreckage of the ship, hoping to find a path to the outside world. Our brave group includes former New York Mayor Robert Ramsey (Kurt Russel), his adult daughter Jennifer (Emily Rossum) and her fiance Christian (Mike Vogel), ladies man Dylan (Josh Lucas), single mother Maggie (Jacinda Barrett) and her prerequisite cute kid son Conor (Jimmy Bennett), stowaway Elena Gonzalez (Mia Maestro), and tragic gay lover Richard (Richard Dreyfus) who has just lost the man he loved to another.

Quite honestly, the screenplay by Mark Protosevich does not care about the characters. They all get maybe a minute or two of introduction, and then the wave hits, and they're forced to band together. The movie is solely interested in being a nonstop special effects thrill ride. I must admit, the technical wizardry in this movie is most impressive. The actual disaster that turns the Poseidon from a luxury liner into a floating death trap is probably one of the most tense and horrific moments we're likely to see at the movies all summer. It is a beautifully crafted scene of horror, and the film wastes little to no time in getting to the sequence, since it knows that it's what the audience has come to see. It's the one moment of the film that truly stands out. Although the movie never quite sinks under its own weight (pardon the pun), it does just kind of float there, setting up plenty of dangers for our small band of heroes to face, but never quite topping the initial excitement and genuine thrills of the first 20 minutes.

What follows after the initial chaos is a group of underdeveloped characters played by highly paid actors who get really wet, severely injured, and struggle for survival. We never quite develop any sort of emotional response with anyone in the group, because the movie keeps us at a distance from them, opting instead to focus solely on the technical aspects of the story. Fortunately, there is a method to the madness. Wolfgang Peterson knows how to helm the film in such a way so that it never becomes too noisy or tedious, despite the fact that the movie is literally a nonstop 85-minute action sequence after about 15 minutes of shallow set up. In the wrong hands, Poseidon is a movie that I could easily see becoming annoying and quite quickly, and although it never quite captivates, it does hold some entertainment value throughout. It's fast-paced, never centers on a certain danger for far too long, and doesn't really give you time to complain. It's only when you're thinking back on the movie that you start to realize that there wasn't a whole lot up there on the screen. Those looking for light junk food for the brain entertainment are those who are most likely to be entertained by Poseidon.

The film has managed to round up a fine cast, but since the characters are so underdeveloped to the point of almost non-existence, it's kind of hard to rate their performances. I guess for a disaster movie like this, the best way to judge is if their fear was believable, and if they were able to pull off their multitude of stunts. Grading solely on these merits, the cast does extremely well. Kurt Russell and Josh Lucas play the "leader" roles of the group, and fill their parts with the proper amount of authority and strong presence. The rest of the group pretty much do what is expected of them. The women act scared and sob a lot for most of the running time, the cute kid character keeps on getting in trouble and wandering off, and the gay man pretty much stays in the background the entire time, because he's played by Richard Dreyfus, and he knows that he's too good for this material. The group at least work well together, and no one got on my nerves. The characters that are annoying (like a surly drunk who joins the group for a short time) are appropriately and expectedly wiped out mere moments after they enter the film. We learn so little about the characters, unfortunately, that it's hard to feel anything when the screenplay asks us to sympathize with them. There's an odd moment in the ballroom when the ship's ballroom singer hugs a man right before a disaster strikes. This is supposed to be a tender moment, but since the movie has not even bothered to develop her as a character (not even bothering to tell us up until now that this man was important to her), it comes across more as awkward than sentimental.

In a way, I admire that the filmmakers did not try to make this movie out to be more than what it's supposed to be. It's a special effects disaster film, and does not pretend to be anything more than that. Poseidon is exactly what you would expect. It's just a bit too shallow for its own good. It's obviously well done, and has a couple successful scenes, and then it's over, and you go on with your life. It's a time killer of a movie that serves its purpose but not much more than that. Hopefully there are some more memorable potential blockbusters on the way this summer. Poseidon manages to stay afloat thanks to its technical wizardry, but there's not much holding it up.

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Sunday, May 07, 2006


Last week, on this very site, I reviewed a wonderful little family film called Akeelah and the Bee. That film was a smart, honest, and funny story that was able to rise above its cliched underdog story and achieve the goal of being one of the better live action family films I have seen in a while. This weekend's family release, Hoot, is almost the polar opposite of that film. Whereas Akeelah was intelligent and avoided manipulations and sugar coating, Hoot is a movie that so desperately wants to be a quirky crowd pleaser and all but fails in just about every way. It's not smart, and for a movie that's supposed to bring home an environmental message, it surprisingly has very little to say. When a film spends so little amount of time on its topic that you actually find yourself forgetting why the heroes are going through all the trouble in the first place, you know you're doing something wrong.

Our young hero is a preteen named Roy Eberhardt (Logan Lerman). His dad's job requires the family to move around a lot, and as the story begins, he's just recently moved to the seaside town of Coconut Grove, Florida. He wastes no time in running afoul of the local school bully (Eric Phillips), but is luckily eventually able to befriend two of the quirkiest kids in the neighborhood. They are the school's tomboyish tough girl Beatrice (Brie Larson) and her mysterious rebel freedom-fighter brother who goes by the nickname of Mullet Fingers (Cody Linley). These two kids spend all their time fighting to save the environment from greedy tycoons who like to build fancy hotels and restaurants in their area. Right now, they are busy battling some people who want to build a pancake chain restaurant on a ground where some endangered owls live. These aren't any ordinary owls, this kind live in tunnel-like holes in the ground, and if the restaurant is built as planned, the holes will be covered up and they will die. To prevent this from happening, Mullet Fingers sneaks into the construction site every night and sabotages their efforts. With the evil head of the restaurant chain (Clark Gregg) coming personally to bulldoze the ground, the kids will have to act fast in order to save their feathered friends, all the while avoiding a dim-witted local cop (Luke Wilson) put in charge of investigating the vandalism acts that keep on happening every night.

Hoot is apparently based on a popular children's novel, and I'm sure this light story would seem cute to a 10-year old on the printed page. But as a 90-minute movie, the film is just too slight and forgettable to make even the slightest impression. Writer-director Will Shriner tells his story with such a laid-back tone that it almost seems to be hardly moving at all. Despite the fact that the kids are supposedly in a race to save the lives of these endangered owls, they still have plenty of time to fish, fight bullies, and generally walk around doing nothing so the movie can show off the pretty Florida scenery. I wasn't exactly expecting a thrill-a-minute ride when I bought my ticket to this movie, but you know your movie has pacing problems when one of the children sitting in the row behind me became more interested in counting the number of popcorn kernels he had left in his bag than in watching what was up on the screen. The movie wants to be a message film to interest kids in endangered species, but the funny thing is, the owls and the plot surrounding them make such rare appearances that I once actually completely forgot about them. The owls themselves pop up two, maybe three times in the entire movie, and are often overshadowed by the subplot about Roy dealing with the evil bully at school. This subplot in turn leads to an absolutely ludicrous story point where Roy's apparently moronic parents force him to write a letter of apology to the violent bully after Roy accidently punches him in the face while trying to escape from the evil kid's choke hold.

That's the big problem with Hoot all around. This is one of those movies where the kids are smarter than every single adult, except for the kid's marine biology teacher, who is played by recording artist Jimmy Buffett. (Not only does he have a supporting role in the film, but he also recorded all the songs for the soundtrack and is credited as one of the producers.) Of course, being smarter than the adults is not hard in this movie, since every single adult figure in this movie is apparently either an oblivious moron or a money-grubbing tyrant who wants to kill innocent baby owls that live in holes. Take Luke Wilson's character as the local law enforcement officer. The man is depicted as being a kindhearted, yet obviously clueless buffoon, who is just a couple notches higher on the IQ chart than the Barney Fife character on the old Andy Griffith Show. Even though he's not that bad of a guy, the movie wastes no opportunity in humiliating him, going so far as to forcing him to drive around town in a modified golf cart vehicle after his police cruiser gets wrecked by the Mullet Fingers kid. Equally embarrassing is the foreman of the construction crew played by Tim Blake Nelson in a repeat performance of the exact same character he played six years ago as one of the slow-witted convicts in O Brother, Where Art Thou? He talks like he learned English by watching reruns of The Beverly Hillbillies, and generally comes across as every stupid Southerner stereotype rolled into one character. And, as mentioned earlier, Roy's own parents seem to care less as they are so oblivious to his actions that they almost come across as neglectful parents that should be arrested. The movie constantly asks us to suspend disbelief that these kids could get away with some of their sabotage actions without any adult figure punishing and/or noticing them. I'd really like to know how this Mullet Fingers was able to find and capture a full-sized alligator, and place it in the construction crew's outhouse without anyone noticing.

The three main child actors generally don't offend, even if a lot of the kids in this movie seem to be a bit too old to be playing preteens. They do what they can with their limited roles, they're just held back by a screenplay that obviously doesn't care about making them interesting characters. I could pretty much say the same for everyone in the cast. Luke Wilson is at least able to let some likeable charm slip through in his underwritten role when the movie isn't forcing him to act like a total idiot for the amusement of the kids in the audience. The only highlight of the movie is the Florida scenery which is photographed very well and does give the movie a certain style. The visual style is warm and comforting, which I guess kind of matches the leisurely pace of the film's plotting. This can only take you so far, and it doesn't take long for you to realize that there's just not a lot to Hoot overall.

I guess this is one of those cases where what works on the page doesn't always work on the big screen. I could actually see Hoot working maybe as an hour-long TV special or something, but as a full-blown theatrical release, the film leaves much to be desired. I have not read the book that inspired this adaptation, so I don't know how faithful it is. I just couldn't escape the feeling that something must have been lost in the transition. Maybe the young fans of the novel will find something to enjoy, but I highly doubt anyone else will find much to get excited about here.

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Saturday, May 06, 2006

An American Haunting

Did anyone really think writer-director Courtney Solomon deserved a second chance after bringing us 2000's laughable fantasy flick, Dungeons & Dragons? And did anyone really think he was the right person to helm a horror movie? Whoever was behind this "bright" idea will have to live with the shame of An American Haunting for the rest of their lives. This "based on a true story" recounting of the infamous Bell Witch legend that happened in the early 1800s is a repetitive, monotonous, completely ridiculous film that would be hilarious if it didn't take itself so seriously. It's a movie that hits the exact same notes over and over again until the audience just plain gets sick of seeing the ghost doing literally the same thing literally ever 50-70 seconds. Eventually, the movie just stops trying to make any form of sense whatsoever, and turns into a poorly edited parade of flashbacks, dream sequences, nightmares, and other such supernatural schlock. In a year already full of bad horror films, An American Haunting stands head and shoulders above the rest, and is easily one of the worst films of the year.

Set mainly in the year 1818 (except for an extremely pointless bookend sequence set in the present day that opens and closes the story), the film follows the Bell family as they are suddenly attacked by vicious night hauntings, most of them surrounding their teenage daughter Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood from 2003's live action Peter Pan film) who is awakened in the middle of the night by violent visits by an unseen assailant. The head of the family, John Bell (Donald Sutherland), thinks it has to do with a curse that was supposedly placed on him by a local witch whom he cheated in a land deal. His loving wife Lucy (Sissy Spacek) is not sure what to think, and only wishes for the safety of her family. Priests and scholars are called to try to make sense out of the madness, but the paranormal attacks only grow stronger, driving John to the point of near-insanity, and Lucy to ultimately discover the terrifying truth behind the ghostly visits.

Even with a running time that barely stretches past 80 minutes, An American Haunting is one of the most padded and pointless excuses for a horror movie I have ever seen in my life. It's almost as if writer-director Solomon had no idea what he wanted to do with his movie about this supposedly true ghost story, so he simply decided to throw one "ghost attack" scene after another. After a shallow 10 minutes or so of set up, the movie sets into a pattern from which it never escapes. Eerie creaking or moaning or whisperings are heard from somewhere in the house, the adults tip toe about, trying to find the source of the sound, and then suddenly all chaos breaks loose, and teenage daughter Betsy is attacked in her sleep. She's either grabbed by her hair, lifted up into the air, and slapped repeatedly across the face by an unseen presence, or she's literally dragged around the house, up the stairs and even up the walls in sequences that end up resembling less moments of horror and more like slapstick parodies of scenes from The Exorcist. As soon as one ghost attack scene is over, another is ready to start less than a minute later, and that's not an exaggeration. I once decided to check my watch, and counted a good 20 or 30 seconds between the evil ghost's exit and its next appearance. The movie keeps on hitting the same notes and doing the same thing that we just want the movie to be over with before the film hits the 40 minute mark.

The film only becomes worse as it wobbles on to its shaky conclusion, as it completely stops even trying to make the least bit of sense. There is no sense of time, the movie jumping from one scene to another without any rhyme or reason. The entire production looks like it was edited with a chainsaw wielded by a drunk man wearing a blindfold. The movie keeps on throwing ghostly attacks, mysterious wolves that attack in the woods for no reason whatsoever, and filling the soundtrack with ominous music and "creepy" sound effects that sound like they were swiped from a local carnival Spook House. This makes the film's final twist not only completely and absolutely baffling, but also just plain awkward. Things simply happen with no explanation, so there is just no sense in trying to make sense of this jumbled mess of a plot the filmmakers have given us. The movie isn't even interesting to look at in a visual sense. The settings are constantly dark, murky, foggy, or muddied. It's kind of like trying to watch a movie through a dirty window. I can understand that the filmmakers were trying to go for a "drab" look to give the film an ominous tone, but here it backfires and simply makes the movie look ugly. There is not one single moment that works in the entire movie, and not one solitary instance that can convince me anyone involved in this production knew what they were doing.

The real mystery of An American Haunting is just how did a schlocky piece of straight to video-quality horror junk attract such a talented cast? Were their loved ones held at gunpoint? Was blackmail involved? I kept on trying to rationalize Donald Sutherland's presence in this movie. It looks like he's just miserable being in this movie, as does the rest of the cast. Everyone's so down and depressed, even when they're supposed to be celebrating Christmas. Sutherland and Spacek both look lost, as they're given absolutely nothing to do but creep around in the dark, and look in horror as their teenage daughter is beat up by an invisible attacker. The script gives us no insight into the Bell family, so we feel nothing when John starts to feel defeated as the haunting wears on. All I can say is I hope the paycheck was good, because no one involved with this movie is going to be able to live this one down for a long time.

It simply boggles my mind that one single horror movie can find a way to go wrong in so many ways, and yet, An American Haunting continued to surprise me with each passing scene in its total ineptness. I have no real knowledge about the actual Bell Witch legend, so I don't know if it could have been made into a decent movie. All I know is that just about anyone else who tried to tackle this project could have come up with a better final result than this. The fact that this film actually managed to score a full-scale release and is stinking up your local cineplex is all the more terrifying. An American Haunting is junky, pointless, repetitive, and holds absolutely no entertainment value whatsoever. It takes a special kind of bad movie to make me hate it this much. An American Haunting is a very, very special movie indeed in this regard.

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Friday, May 05, 2006

Mission: Impossible III

Since its introduction in 1996, the Mission: Impossible film franchise has taken many forms, as the director of each individual installment has offered his own unique spin on the classic 60s TV series that inspired it. The original director, Brian De Palma, gave us a complex and confusing plot mixed in with some impressive action sequences. Asian filmmaker John Woo took control of Mission: Impossible II in 2000, simplified the plot, and threw in a lot of slow mo and overly stylized action sequences. Now here we have Mission: Impossible III, under the guidance of TV series creator turned filmmaker J.J. Abrams (of Lost and Alias fame). What Abrams brings to the series is a frantic and almost chaotic thrill ride that seems to rely too heavily on the thrills and not enough on common sense. The film is a loud, barely coherent roller coaster ride of a movie that, while entertaining enough while you're watching it, just doesn't stick with you the second you walk out of the theater. Will this movie have what it takes to bring Tom Cruise back to action hero leading man status after a year full of negative publicity and disastrous public appearances? Only time and the film's opening weekend box office will tell. All I know is that for my money, Mission: Impossible III is a bit too slight for its own good.

As the film opens, IMF Agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) has finally met the right woman in the form of a sweet nurse named Julia (Michelle Monaghan), and is seriously considering leaving his days as a super spy behind him and finally settling down. He's called back into action when one of his former students in the agency, Lindsey Feris (Keri Russell), is kidnaped while investigating a ruthless arms dealer named Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The ultimate outcome of the rescue mission makes Hunt realize that Davian is a madman that must be stopped. The mission will take him to various exotic locales around the world, and will ultimately uncover Davian's true purpose - to locate a top secret weapon known only as the "Rabbit's Foot". The mission turns personal when the mad arms dealer turns the tables on Hunt, and uses threats and blackmail in order to force Ethan to steal the deadly weapon for him. With his wife Julia and his new life in jeopardy, Ethan Hunt will be pushed to the edge in order to protect everything he holds dear.

It's quite obvious that J.J. Abrams was trying to add a more personal touch to this installment by having the villain threatening Ethan's private life as well as global security. In an attempt to add some more human drama to the proceedings, Abrams allows us to look at Hunt's world outside of his job - something we saw precious little of if any in the previous films. This is certainly commendable, and there are some other nice touches that he uses in this film as well. The opening scene is actually a very tense sequence late in the film where we find Hunt in the middle of a life or death situation. The film then flashes back to where it all began. The opening scene is a great attention grabber for the audience, and sets up an appropriate tense tone. It's too bad that the film winds up shooting itself in the foot, as it is never quite able to reach this level of tension ever again. And while the idea of focusing on Ethan's life is a good one, the film does so little with the idea that you almost wonder why Abrams (who co-wrote the script as well) kept the idea in there at all. All hope that this will be an intelligent action thriller fades away as we slowly begin to realize that the film has nothing more on its mind than being a white knuckle special effects and overblown stunt extravaganza.

Now, there's certainly nothing wrong with that, especially for a summer movie. But Mission: Impossible III gets a little bit too crazy for its own good. The movie throws Hunt into one increasingly ludicrous dangerous situation after another, piling them on to the point that it starts to become unintentionally laughable. The fact that most of these overblown action sequences take place in broad daylight and in the middle of crowded and public areas, and the surrounding people don't seem to be quite as concerned as they really should be, makes it all the more hilarious. Now, I've never been in a situation where I was in a crowded city street bridge, and suddenly helicopters and jet fighters started shooting at cars with guided missiles but somehow, I think the innocent people would be in much more of a panic. Public roadways are blown to bits, massive amounts of property damage occurs, innocent people get caught in the crossfire, and very few people even seem to raise an eyebrow at these incredible and horrific events unfolding right outside their front door. For a top secret government agency, the IMF certainly does not take any drastic steps to hide their identity, since in this movie they're often in violent gunfights in plain view, dodging bullets and ballistic weaponry. It gets to the point that the film starts to resemble a big dumb video game with Tom Cruise running, jumping, and shooting hundreds of faceless drones. This is one of those movies where you wonder why the filmmakers didn't just go all the way and add a score counter in the top right hand corner of the screen.

I probably wouldn't mind so much if the movie didn't deceive us into thinking that it was going to be more than that. The movie starts out by leading us on to believe that it's actually going to be about something, only to fall back on continuous action sequences that are well done, but start to grow tiresome as the film goes on. The movie doesn't even seem to be interested in its own plot, as we never do find out quite what the "Rabbit's Foot" really is. Ethan Hunt keeps on asking what the Rabbit Foot is, but the answer is never provided. We do get to see it, and judging by the countless warning labels that cover it, it's obviously very dangerous, but that's about all the information the movie provides us with. If you're going to build your plot around a supposed doomsday device, it's nice to at least get an idea of what kind of damage it can cause. It's almost as if the action sequences are here to distract us from the absence of plot, which of course they are. The plot is just an afterthought, and the movie treats it as such. Characters and potentially interesting plot elements are squandered on an overall rushed tone and pace, despite the fact that the film runs at a generous running time of just over two hours. A good example is the main villain, Owen Davian. While appropriately ruthless and icy, there is very little to his role. He is underwritten, and despite getting a few choice scenes, he seems to come and go as the screenplay sees fit, and abruptly exits the film in an almost anticlimactic final scene.

That's not to say everyone doesn't give it their all. Tom Cruise is all but willing to throw himself back into the stunt-filled role of super agent Ethan Hunt. Yes, he doesn't get to create quite as human a character as the film hints at in the beginning, but he is physically skilled enough to pull off the demanding role and a number of complex action scenes. He also has to pretty much carry the film all by himself, as his fellow agents (including Ving Rhames and Maggie Q) are restricted to mostly being on the sidelines while Cruise's Hunt gets to show off. Michelle Monaghan starts off promising as Hunt's new wife (though what happened to Hunt's girlfriend that he walked off into the sunset with at the end of M:I II is never quite explained), but she is mostly used as a damsel in distress, except for a ludicrous scene near the end where she suddenly becomes an expert at handling automatic weaponry after Hunt gives her a brief 15-second explanation on how to load it. Though she is attractive and likeable, we never quite get why Ethan is willing to give up his old life for her, as they spend such a short amount of time together. The real stand out is Philip Seymour Hoffman, who gives a commanding and powerful performance as the film's main villain. He is ruthless, demanding, strong, and deserves much better than what the screenplay gives him. He has such a strong presence that you want to see more of him. Unfortunately, the movie mostly keeps him at bay, and we feel like we're only watching a small fraction of what the character is capable of. Too bad, with a stronger role, the character of Owen Davian could have been one of the more memorable movie villains I think.

When all is said and done, Mission: Impossible III succeeds as a brainless thrill ride movie, but I just can't quite shake the feeling that the filmmakers may have had high aspirations. If they didn't, they should be ashamed of themselves, because there's a lot of wasted opportunities here for a movie that mixes intelligent thrills with popcorn entertainment. In the end, the popcorn aspect wins out, and we're left with just another well-executed yet immediately forgettable summer blockbuster that will most likely make money, but I don't think will be looked back fondly on as the years go on. How sad is it that a single episode of one of Abrams' shows can hold more substance than the entire running time of this movie? Much like those famous self-destructing messages that the series is known for, Mission: Impossible III simply blows up in a slew of over the top action, and evaporates from your mind as soon as the end credits start to roll.

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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Akeelah and the Bee

Here's a question I'd like to set out to all parents - What movie did you let your children see last weekend? It was most likely R.V. Or perhaps you let them watch Ice Age: The Meltdown for the second or third time. I ask this question because so many of you apparently did not take them to see Akeelah and the Bee if last weekend's box office totals are to be trusted. Why you would choose to ignore this wonderful and downright uplifting family film, I have no idea. Yes, it doesn't have the star power of Robin Williams, nor the marketing campaign of the current CGI cartoon of the month. What it does have is a wonderful story that just about anyone can appreciate, and a surprisingly intelligent and heartfelt screenplay by writer-director Doug Atchison. I fear that this film's time at your local cinema may be brief, so I highly advise one and all (even those without children) to make the time to see this great little movie.

11-year-old Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer) is a smart young girl trapped in a failing middle school located in the poor area of Los Angeles. When she was younger, she seemed destined for great things, and even skipped ahead a grade. But because she is surrounded by violence, gangs, and an unstable family life at home, she is afraid of what others would think of her if she displayed her intelligence openly, and prefers to keep her gifts and her love of learning to herself. Akeelah's continuous perfect scores on spelling tests catches the attention of the school's principal (Curtis Armstrong), and he sees an opportunity to give the school some positive publicity by entering her in the local Spelling Bee. Akeelah is reluctant, but eventually goes along with the plan, easily winning the competition and earning her chance to go to the State Bee, and perhaps even the National. She is soon paired with a spelling tutor who will help guide her down the long road ahead - a former college professor with a wide variety of personal demons in his past (Laurence Fishburne). Akeelah must now not only deal with the pressures of the Bee and representing her school, but also the continuous pressures at home, including an overworked mother (Angela Bassett) who fails to see the potential in her own daughter's dreams.

The underdog story told within Akeelah and the Bee has been told many times before, but rarely has it been told this well. I don't think I'm giving away anything by revealing that the spelling tutor's past will catch up with him, Akeelah will learn to believe in herself and embrace her own abilities, and that the climax will bring everything together at the big competition. It's a formula that dates all the way back to the Rocky films, and probably even further back than that. However, the screenplay by Atchison is not just content to simply throw out the expected plot elements. It goes much deeper than that, developing real and honest characters that make even the most tired cliches seem almost new again, and dialogue that is often natural sounding and never forced. This isn't one of those movies where the kids are smarter than the adults, and throw out continuous one liners that only a highly paid Hollywood writer could dream up. The kids are allowed to act like real children. Their joy, their insecurities, their hopes - It's all real and it's all up there on the screen. When the kids do bring forth laughs from the audience, it's not because of some clever line of dialogue, or because of juvenile bathroom humor. They generate laughs by being real children, and acting like they would in such a situation. This movie contains one of the more accurate portrayals of childhood I've seen in a wide release movie in quite some time.

There is an overall sense of honesty in Akeelah that rings true almost throughout. From its characters to its dialogue, the film always strives to aim higher than what we'd expect in the genre. The character of Akeelah herself may follow some of the standard rules of child heroines in these kind of films (must have one dead parent, must have a hard time believing in themself, etc.), but she is lifted above the norm thanks to the personality the screenplay gives her, and the wonderful performance by young Keke Palmer makes her come alive even more. She is someone easy to root for, flawed in her own way, and immediately likeable. Even the supporting characters, like the kids that she befriends in the Spelling Bee circuit, are more true than what we would expect, including a wonderful performance by a young actor named J.R. Villarreal as Akeelah's best friend in the competition. Not only does Mr. Villarreal have great comic timing, but he's also a generally talented child actor all around, and one I would like to see more of. And even if the script's plot covers some well worn territory, it still finds some ways to surprise us, especially during its climax. Most of all, I enjoyed how Akeelah's hometown life and surroundings were portrayed. Even if they have been softened up somewhat in order to keep a PG-rating, the script does not shy away from the hardships of Akeelah's life. Not just the hardships, but also the joys of her local community have been correctly displayed here.

Aside from the previously mentioned performances of Keke Palmer and J.R. Villarreal, the film is graced all around by a number of strong performances from just about its entire cast. Laurence Fishburne may be playing the typical "tutor with a past" role, but he has good chemistry with Palmer during their scenes together, and a commanding presence that immediately draws the audience's attention to him. Angela Bassett comes off a bit one note at first as the mother who cannot understand her daughter's dreams, because she's too wrapped up in her own problems, but she is still able to come across as likeable and honest when her character is given more dimension during the later half of the film. The only character who does seem to falter (and this is partially due to one of the few faults I found with the screenplay) is that Akeelah's troubled older brother is not given much to do, nor does he serve much purpose in the film. He is supposed to be the source of a lot of the mother's agony, and doesn't seem to care for Akeelah or anything else for that matter for most of the film. His personality suddenly and quite abruptly changes with a single scene, and he is suddenly fully supportive and cheering her on, the entire story arc built around his problems being dropped completely. It's a minor gripe to be sure, but given how truthful everything else about this movie is, the subplot seemed so tidy and perfect as to be out of place.

If anything, Akeelah and the Bee proves that a movie can rise above formulaic plotting and storytelling with smart dialogue, characters we can cheer for and identify with, and most of all, treating its own subject with integrity. Here is a family movie that doesn't condescend and doesn't overly manipulate our emotions. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a non-animated family film this much, and if you give this movie a chance, neither I think will you. Don't let this one slip by, even if you have to wait for the DVD. Above all, this movie should be required viewing for producers who greenlight slop like The Shaggy Dog, if just to show them how to do a quality family film.

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