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"That's a nice-a donut."

Friday, April 29, 2005


Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story

In comedy there is often a very fine line between what is funny and what is unfunny. For some people a joke may be funny or hilarious or sometimes just subtlely delicious in its wisdom. For other people a joke may be unfunny, dumb, sometimes lame or even downright embarrassing. For this reviewer, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story was generally the latter. It is an extremely predictable farce about an owner of a failing gym who is about to lose the business to a successful rival. He has thirty days to scrounge up $50,000. After an ill-fated car wash, one of the loyal members of his gym comes up with a plan to enter a dodgeball tournament. And what do you know - the top prize is $50,000!

Ben Stiller, as the freakish rival who is somewhat reminiscent of Hans or Franz from Saturday Night Live, once again is the weakest link. When he tries to be outrageous or over-the-top, or even when he just tries to be funny, Stiller is simply one of the worst actors around. If pretty much anyone else was in this role I may actually have liked the movie. Vince Vaughn, as the main character, and his band of outcasts from the gym are all decent. Stephen Root, who played the loveable loser Milton in the cult-classic Office Space, reprises pretty much the same role here. But the few laughs mostly come from Rip Torn as the wheelchair-bound (and quite vulgar) ex-dodgeball star. "If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball," is a great line and certainly one of the more memorable moments.

The ending of Dodgeball is Hollywood at its worst. But again, as with many things, appreciation for comedy is very subjective. One man's trash is another man's treasure, so the saying goes.

The Verdict: C-.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005


Closer

Closer is the story of four people and their inability to maintain honest, amiable, or honorable relationships. These people are selfish and flawed and dysfunctional at romance. The men (played by Jude Law and Clive Owen) and the women (played by Julia Roberts and Natalie Portman) find themselves cheating on one another, followed by trying to reconcile. It all comes crashing down in a few intense scenes where the couple's let go of their feelings for one another.

One complaint I had about the movie is that I never felt any attachment to any of the couples. This may be exacerbated by the fact that the passage of time is used too liberally. For instance, near the beginning two of the characters meet. They do some flirting but it seems like maybe it wasn't meant to be. Flash-forward one scene and one of those characters is now flirting with another person. This doesn't necessarily mean much to me, because I had no idea that apparently four months (or more) have elapsed and the first two people are still together! Hence, cheating ensues.

Director Mike Nichols does a great job at pushing his actors to fine performances, especially Clive Owen who is able to show anger, heartache, and humor all at once. And the tension and drama of close relationships are well developed. I also appreciated the frank discussions of sex; one hilarious scene involves an online chatroom and is quite risque. But we never get to look closely at the fun, carefree, early stages of romance. This hurts the film, because in the end I didn't care if Julia stayed with Clive, or if Julia stayed with Jude, or if Julia got with Natalie.

The Verdict: B-.

Monday, April 25, 2005


For a Few Dollars More

Sergio Leone's For a Few Dollars More is the second spaghetti western in the so-called "Man With No Name" trilogy (the first being A Fistful of Dollars, and the third is The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly), each starring Clint Eastwood. The story is relatively simple; two bounty hunters go after a dangerous outlaw and his gang for the reward money. They each have different motives, but agree to team up, with one (Eastwood) joining the gang to take it down from the inside and the other (played by Lee Van Cleef) working on the outside.

I like For a Few Dollars more, but I don't hold it in the same regard as some others do (see its IMDb Top 250 ranking for example). The story is the weakest of the three in the trilogy. First, I did not feel any real empathy towards any of the characters, as they were not developed to their full potential. I also would have preferred a few more action sequences. In general, the movie suffers from some pacing problems.

That being said, there are a number of things to like about the film. First and foremost is composer Ennio Morricone's great score. Unlike many of the generic musical scores from more modern films, the music in Dollars truly fits the picture. And par for the course for a Leone film, the cinematography is beautiful. It is great how well headshots are framed to create tension. Also, some of the banter and interaction between Eastwood and Van Cleef is pure gold. There are some really funny moments here. Eastwood, rightfully, became a big star from these films.

The Verdict: B.

Sunday, April 24, 2005


Parasite (2003)

Parasite is one of those interchangeable horror/thriller movies shown on the Sci-Fi Channel. Nearly all of them are bad, yet I sometimes find myself drawn to them, perhaps for the unintentional comedy value. This movie is no exception. The basic story takes place on an oil rig in the middle of the ocean, where a company is testing out a new enzyme which is designed to improve the environmental-friendliness of cleaning up the rigs. Naturally, when too much of the enzyme is uses it produces fast-growing monster parasites!

Much of the plot of Parasite seems to be taken from James Cameron's Aliens. Of course there are two things questionable about that. First, I hesitate to use the words "Parasite" and "Aliens" in the same sentence. Second, I hesitate to use the words "Parasite" and "plot" in the same sentence. I'm not sure I've ever seen a movie with more plot holes, worse editing, or continuity issues. At one point a clock is counting down until a vehicle is launched. Some 20 minutes or so later, just 2 seconds have passed by on the clock. And that's just one example. One the not-necessarily-a-negative side, the acting isn't that bad - at least beyond my expectations. But avoid this one unless you want to watch a comedy.

The Verdict: D+.

Saturday, April 23, 2005


The Magnificent Ambersons

Orson Welles followed up his masterpiece directorial debut, Citizen Kane, with The Magnificent Ambersons. The Ambersons are a well-to-do family in the late-19th century, and the story (adapted from an award-winning novel by Booth Tarkington) follows their slow and steady decline. The main character is George, a young man who doesn't want to do any real work and who believes that his family is better than your family. After his father dies, his mother Isabella is wooed by a successful inventor and automaker. George, being a spoiled brat, resents this and helps uses his aunt Fanny to stop the romance. Things continue to go down hill from there.

While the film techniques perhaps weren't as groundbreaking as those in Citizen Kane, Welles still managed to inject his style throughout the film. Clever voice-over is used at the beginning, as well as impressive use of lighting and some fun cuts and dissolves. The end "credits" are also quite neat (you'll have to see for yourself). Further, the actors all do a fine job (though not to take anything away from Tim Holt as George, I do wish Welles himself had starred in it). That being said, this is a good but not great work. First of all, due to the editing, some things are not clear at all and other scenes feel rather incoherent. The pacing is awkward, and sometimes too slow. Also, personally I found the story to be too bland and not quite my taste.

It should be noted that The Magnificent Ambersons is a pretty famous example of disagreement between the director and the movie studio. A nice discussion of this is given at this website. Basically Welles' original cut was edited and then, after very negative previews, was edited even further with little input from the director. Among other things, the ending was radically changed, including adding on the obligatory "happy ending." Welles was more or less fired from RKO and never quite attained the same level of critical success as he did with Kane. Apparently the original footage no longer exists and so it may always be a mystery as to how magnificent the Ambersons could have been.

The Verdict: B+.

Friday, April 22, 2005


Primer

Primer is a very intriguing, a very complex and, ultimately, a very flawed film. On the surface, it is about a couple of guys - some sort of scientists or engineers - who are working on a project to develop...something. This something turns out to be a box that can seemingly time travel (where a certain amount of time in the box is equal to less time outside the box). At first they test it out using a Weeble. But then one of them gets in the magic box to try it out. One important thing to note is the concept of the "failsafe" wherein they charge the box up but can only travel back in time for as long as the box is running. It would be difficult to summarize any further without spoiling anything, but let's just say that things start to get very complicated and confusing. I'm still scratching my head over some of it. I wanted to like it more than I did, but just because a movie has plot holes or puzzling loop holes does not automatically make it a good movie.

The filmmakers, obviously working with a low budget, use minimal lighting in many scenes and the audio is imperfect - to say the least. But they do not waste any scenes, as the movie clocks in at a brisk 77 minutes. Also, the actors are far from stars - and probably never will be - but they do an adequate job. I recommend this movie for the fact that is original, fairly entertaining, and rather thought-provoking. It's also one of those that you just need to see for yourself. However my guess is that the percentage of people who like Primer will be directly proportional to the amount of people who found something like Mulholland Dr. to be easy to understand. A second viewing is suggested.

The Verdict: C+.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005


Hotel Rwanda

Hotel Rwanda has been described as an African-version of Schindler's List, and it certainly has some similarities. For starters, both films are based on true stories. Don Cheadle, in an Oscar-nominated role, plays the manager of a four-star hotel in Rwanda at the onset of fighting between two ethnic groups: the Tutsis and the Hutus. He ends up using the hotel as a refuge for what would turn out to be over one thousand people. Along the way he gets some occasional help from a UN soldier and an international Red Cross worker, and must bribe the genocidal Hutus from killing everyone in the hotel.

Many of the events in the film are genuinely harrowing. At one point, Cheadle's hotel manager and his wife make a pact that if the soldiers come into the hotel, the wife and kids will go to the roof and jump off - potentially saving themselves from what would surely be even worse pain. Cheadle and Sophie Okenedo, as the wife, are fantastic. In fact, I look forward to seeing Okenedo again; hopefully this performance will allow her to begin to get some prime parts in Hollywood.

Nevertheless, the movie does have some flaws. Just about everyone beyond the few main characters are ignored in terms of character development. And I would love to have seen more background on the conflict, particularly on the shameful way that the rest of the world tragically allowed the massacres to go on. Hotel Rwanda is a fine place, but I'm not sure I ever want to go back.

The Verdict: B+.

Monday, April 18, 2005


Envy

Dear Barry Levinson,

What have you done? Is someone blackmailing you? Oh my, how far you have fallen! You were once an A-list director with such greats as Diner, The Natural, Bugsy, your Academy Award-winning peak in Rain Man, not to mention your role as a producer on the wonderful Homicide: Life on the Street television show. And now you give us... Envy, about a man who invents a miraculous spray that vaporizes animal poo and begins filthy rich off it. Meanwhile, his friend becomes jealous of his success and crazy hijinks ensue.

Barry, you just wasted nearly two hours of my life. Envy is a truly horrid movie. The plot is one of the stupidest I've ever seen, and the actors just go through the motions as if they were in prison during the shoot. Jack Black, who I normally like, is downright annoying and wholly unfunny as the poo spray creator. Ben Stiller, who I usually like in these more restrained roles (such as in There's Something About Mary), is a complete waste as the envious friend. Christopher Walken gives us a been-there done-that performance as yet another crazy wacko, though he does give us perhaps the film's only laugh.

This felt like one of those awful Saturday Night Live movies, where a slightly funny 5 or 10 minute skit is somehow made into a feature-length film. I weep for the days of smart(er) comedies. Because I'm in a generous mood - The Verdict: D.

Friday, April 15, 2005


The Cat Returns

Yet another in a long line of top-notch Miyazaki films (this time as a producer), The Cat Returns is a delightful tale about a young girl who saves a cat one day. Well, as it turns out, the cat she saved was a prince from the Kingdom of Cats. She is treated with numerous rewards including her yard turns into cat grass, and she gets mice in her school locker. Oh, and she must marry the cat prince.

The girl obviously has misgivings about this, so she finds a couple of cats at the Cat Bureau who agree to help her out. And that's when the real fun begins. We are transported into a truly awe-inspiring film, reminiscent of many aspects of Alice in Wonderland. My only gripe is that I found the Cat King to be a little too over-the-top, but this is a minor point and takes nothing away from the enjoyment of the film. Once again, Japan's Studio Ghibli has made something special that is practically perfect for families to watch together. It is a real shame that more people haven't seen this. I don't hesitate to say - and no disrespect meant to Disney circa 1940-1960 - that we are living in a golden age of animated film.

The Verdict: A-.

Thursday, April 14, 2005


And now, my top 10 films directed by Senor Spielbergo.

1) Jaws
2) Saving Private Ryan
3) Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
4) E.T. the Extra Terrestrial
5) Schindler's List
6) Close Encounters of the Third Kind
7) Raiders of the Lost Ark
8) Duel
9) Minority Report
10) Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom


Jaws

Jaws was perhaps the very first summer blockbuster, "event" film. And, to this day, I think that it is still the very best of the so-called popcorn flicks. I'm sure that nearly everyone of at least a certain age has seen Jaws by now but, in short, it is about a killer great white shark that terrorizes a small New England island community one summer and the three men who try to stop it. Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw were all perfectly cast as the police chief, an oceanographer, and the crusty fisherman, respectively.

It's not a very complex film. It doesn't have any hidden meanings, and it isn't a metaphor for anything. In fact, the film was headed for failure during its nightmarish production. For starters, director Steven Spielberg and the rest of the crew had much difficulty getting the mechanical shark (a.k.a. "Bruce") to work correctly. This seemed to work to their advantage because they had to work around it and the movie is better off as a result.

The most amazing thing is that you don't even see the shark until about the midway point, more than an hour into it. Instead, we are overcome with the horror of the unknown. Other than, John Williams' classic score, we have no way of knowing when or if there will be another attack. Is that the shark are just some kids playing in the water? Spielberg has since gone on to near-worldwide acclaim, and has made numerous classics since. But none of them are better than this. You're gonna need a bigger boat.

The verdict: A+.

Monday, April 11, 2005


Unconstitutional: The War on Our Civil Liberties

Unconstitutional: The War on Our Civil Liberties is one in a series of similarly produced political films (including Uncovered: The War on Iraq, Oufoxed: Rupert Mudoch’s War on Journalism, and Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election, among others) that were released in the year or two prior to this past November's national election. It is a relatively short documentary that focuses on the many adverse effects of the "War on Terror" and the USA Patriot Act (a.k.a. Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism).

A number of authorities (such as the Executive Director of the ACLU, for example), as well as ordinary people affected by the witch hunt, are interviewed. Some of the stories are downright frightening. All of them should get you thinking long and hard about your opinions on these issues, even if you have previously been supportive of most Bush Administration policies. The movie is very effective, but perhaps too short and too over-edited in a few spots. At just under 70 minutes I was left with a few questions, as well as a desire to hear more.

The Verdict: B-.


Safe

Safe, directed by Todd Haynes and starring Julianne Moore, is about an upper middle-class suburban woman whose health begins to mysteriously deteriorate. From the beginning it is apparent that she is not too happy with life, and living in the material world, and later she begins to have difficulty breathing and vomits without warning. Her doctor indicates that nothing is wrong, and then a psychiatrist finds no major problems either. And so on, and so forth, until she ends up in a holistic / new-age health commune with other people with a condition known as "environmental illness".

Moore is very convincing portraying the exhaustion, self-doubt, and even self-hate that inflict the troubled woman. Surely many normal people experience such emotions from time-to-time, but few experience them to such extremes. And that brings me to what is actually a positive and a negative about Safe. It seems to want to have it both ways: as both a dark comedy satire on suburban living, but also as a tender study of a woman's breakdown due to everyday things. With that in mind: this is a good, but not great, film.

The Verdict: B-.

Sunday, April 10, 2005


The Conversation

Sometimes a good movie gets overlooked in the theaters, only to be discovered later on home video. It is rare, and even tragic, when an excellent Academy Award-nominated movie is still overlooked and unappreciated after more than 30 years. I suspect part of that is because The Conversation was released in the same year (1974) as Roman Polanski's brilliant Chinatown and Francis Ford Coppola's other, but bigger, film The Godfather Part II. Even so, this is one of my favorite films of all-time.

The Conversation is a complex study of surveillance expert Harry Caul ("the best bugger on the West Coast") played by Gene Hackman, in what is surely his finest performance. The movie begins by following a couple around a crowded city park, and we soon realize that Harry and his team are recording what they are saying. Harry then effortlessly pieces the three sound recordings into the best possible mix. As he does this we are transported back to the original conversation, hearing only what Harry does, and this device becomes an integral part of the film. (And to that, special mention should be given here to Walter Murch, who effectively made sound another character in the film.) It doesn't matter to him why they are recording this couple, or what the couple did, or what is so special about a hotel room that is mentioned; he just cares about getting the best job done. But when he meets to collect his money and hand over the tape he starts to develop a conscience.

Things begin to quickly spiral out of control. What happened in that hotel room? And is Harry being watched or listened to? A key theme of The Conversation is that Harry, the man whose job is to eavesdrop on other people, is himself not very good at being secretive and private. Near the beginning, a neighbor easily gets inside his apartment - with the four locks and security system - to give him a birthday gift. And what happens at the end... well, you'll just have to see for yourself.

The Verdict: A+.

Friday, April 08, 2005


It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books

The title of the very low-budget movie, It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, comes from the Russian translation of words on the main character's shirt. We never see the front of the shirt, and only know about this because a passerby who has familiarity with the language tells us so. This is just one of many random, meaningless, and irrelevant things that happen, and serves seemingly no purpose in advancing the "plot" of the movie. The story, if you can call it one, basically involves a guy who decides to not return for another semester of college and then aimlessly travels on busses and trains for most of the movie.

The film, like the main character (played by the director, Richard Linklater) never really seems to go anywhere. It is relatively boring and utterly forgettable. It sometimes felt like I was watching a documentary on Discovery or the National Geographic Channel, except that those programs are shorter, better edited, and usually much more interesting. I have no problem with experimental films, but this one just doesn't work for me. Thankfully Linklater would keep at it and go on to become a first-rate filmmaker, including Dazed and Confused, Before Sunset, and School of Rock, among others.

The verdict: D+.


Sneakers

Sneakers is a fairly enjoyable, but flawed, caper about computer hacking, spying, and shady government agents. It stars Robert Redford and a host of other stars including Sidney Poitier, Dan Aykroyd, Ben Kingsley, River Phoenix, and even James Earl Jones, and was directed by Phil Alden Robinson of the Field of Dreams.

Redford's character has been in hiding from the law ever since an incident more than 20 years before. He now heads a company of "sneakers"; they are hired by companies to sneak in and steal stuff in order to test their security. That life comes crashing down one day when he is visited by a couple government agents who have a simple job for him. They are to steal a magical black box that has the power to control seemingly everything: power grids, banking systems, you name it. After doing this, and handing it over to the agents, the sneakers realize that nothing is what it seems. The agents seem to be the bad guys and Redford and his crew decide that they need to steal the black box back.

The film's plot is quite complex and oftentimes illogical. Also, a couple of the villains and the closing scenes are a bit over-the-top. Nevertheless, Sneakers is generally fun to watch. It felt like it was an inspiration for the glitzy Ocean's 11 remake starring Clooney and Co., and I was also reminded of Coppola's underappreciated masterpiece, The Conversation. The sneakers are all very sympathetic - though more character development for a couple of them would have been nice - and the action scenes and suspense are first-rate. This is a solid movie that I suspect may only improve with subsequent viewings.

The verdict: B.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005


Vera Drake

Vera Drake is a very caring woman, in 1950 London, with a "heart of gold" who takes care of her extended family. She often has a smile on her face and, for example, is overwhelmed with happiness when her daughter's suitor finally proposes. She also holds a dirty secret; she helps young girls with their problems. In short, she sometimes goes to women's homes to help them (and receiving no money for it), by inducing miscarriages.

This engaging film by Mike Leigh is compassionately told, and is beautifully composed. The photography, costume design, and color palette really make the viewer feel like it is taking place in mid-century England. The whole cast gives tremendous performances, especially Imelda Staunton as Vera and Phillip Davis as her husband. When the Drake's life takes a decidedly downward turn a little past the halfway point, Staunton is so convincing with her subtlety and facial expressions that you truly feel as if you are suffering with her. The movie isn't for everyone but, nevertheless, I highly recommend it.

The verdict: A-.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005


The Girl Next Door

The Girl Next Door is a fairly good teen comedy about a high school senior, and his two friends, who discovers that the beautiful young woman living next door used to be an adult film actress. A porn star. The leads, including Elisha Cuthbert of "24" fame as the girl next door and young Emile Hirsch as the main protagonist, both turn in good performances. But Timothy Olyphant (now best known as Seth Bullock on the groundbreaking "Deadwood") steals the scenes he is in as an adult film producer who is trying to get the girl next door to come back to her former work.

The plot is filled with various movie cliches, a lame subplot about helping foreign student come to the county, and the obligatory happy ending, but overall the film seems to rise above the wasteland of most teen movies. I was continually reminded of Risky Business while watching this, and I think that's a good thing.

The verdict: B-.

Sunday, April 03, 2005


Sin City

For my money, the trailer for Frank Miller's Sin City was one of the best cut previews of the last several years. It looked awesome, it had killer music to go with it, and it gave you small bits and pieces but left you blown away and wanting more. Well, it did its job (for me at least). I saw this yesterday and have to say that the movie more than lives up to its promise since its origin on the pages of a comic book.

This film is simply visually incredible. It is shown in mostly old-fashioned black and white, with strategically placed color (as in the comic book) such as gold for a pretty hooker's hair or red for a dress or blue for someone's eyes. The violent movie is broken up into three main parts, each telling a story of different - but overlapping - characters in the fictional Basin City. Some of these people would be the dregs of our society, yet you care deeply for them. This is truly film noir in many ways. Well... perhaps neo-ultra-hyper-film noir.

The dialog is sometimes stilted, but given its noir roots, I can forgive it. The acting, the stories, the lighting, the photography, the visual effects, the art direction - almost everything else is sinfully first rate.

The verdict: A-.

Saturday, April 02, 2005


Finding Neverland

Finding Neverland is a lush, whimsical tale of J.M. Barrie - the creator of "Peter Pan" - and the family that inspires him along the way. The director, Marc Forster, does a fine job of mixing reality with the fantastic imagination of Barrie and his young friends. Most of the cast does a great job too, including the Oscar-nominated Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet. I won't give any specifics away but one scene, where Barrie brings the play to the family's house, is really special.

The film does have some flaws. I thought that a few of the scenes near the end were a bit too melodramatic. The relationship between Barrie and his wife is treated more as a throwaway in the plot. And I was sure that at any moment the young boy Peter (played by Freddie Highmore) was going to proclaim that he saw dead people.

All in all, this is a very good movie. I went in not really knowing what to expect, and I was generally pleased.

The verdict: B+.

Friday, April 01, 2005


Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

The title character in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a cold-blooded, ruthless monster. Yet, he is also a human being who sometimes shows compassion and even gets brief (albeit very brief) moments of sympathy. It is a macabre look into the mind and everyday life of a bad man. At times, it begs the question: are any of our friends, neighbors, coworkers, or acquaintances not what they seem?

Henry is living with his friend Otis and Otis' sister, Becky, who comes to stay with them to get away from her husband. Becky is a very likeable character, but is quite naïve. She feels a connection and takes an immediate liking to Henry. Otis seems like an okay guy at first, but is a bit of a doofus and lacks self-control. Things begin to unravel and, well, let's just say that the ending is pretty haunting.

Michael Rooker, who would later star in such films as Days of Thunder and Oliver Stone's masterpiece JFK, turns in a tremendous performance as Henry. This is a good, solid film. But, I couldn't help thinking that I would like to have seen more on Henry's everyday life and his relationships with other people. The movie is quite short (only about 82 minutes) and it leaves you wanting more.

The verdict: B+.

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