"That's a nice-a donut."

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid (2004)

Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid was billed as a followup to Anaconda, starring Jennifer Lopez and Ice Cube. But this is a sequel only in the sense that the atrocious Halloween III: Season of the Witch is a sequel in the continuing adventures of ravenous lunatic Michael Myers, because the plot bears very little resemblance.

The Hunt for the Blood Orchid is a rather lame story about a handful researchers sent by a pharmaceutical company to acquire samples of the rare blood orchid, because the plant has shown promise in extending cellular life (i.e., a possible "fountain of youth"). But it gets even better... It's only in bloom for one more week! And it's only found in Borneo! And it's rainy season there! And some members of the group don't like each other! And the guide they hire has a really old junk of a boat! And the anacondas - don't forget the anacondas!

The thriller/horror scenes in the movie are downright laughable. So much so that I'm surprised this actually ended up in movie theaters rather than as a Sci-Fi Channel original feature. The anacondas are absurdly large and - surprise - it's mating season, hence an excuse for them to have more than one or two of the snakes (as they are very territorial in nature). The acting is rather bad and the character development is forced and unimportant. I don't recall a single one of the actors' names (or any of their character's names even), and I'm not sure it really even matters. The order at which the doomed crew are stalked by the predators is fairly predictable; I imagine one way to make the movie enjoyable would be to create a drinking game out of it, where people try to predict which person gets attacked next.

The few bright spots in Anacondas are when the group is on the boat. Yes, the story is poorly written and the actors are C-level, but there is a lot of promise in these jungle scenes. In fact the movie would have been better if they had scrapped much of the script and focused on their journey up the river. In case you were wondering, Borneo is also the general location for the original season of the hit reality series Survivor. It is a beautiful place and this helps to create a calming effect, which would make a well-filmed thriller even more terrifying. Just keep looking if you want a good scare.

The Verdict: D+.

Bad News Bears (2005)

In the ever-expanding world of "movie remakes that weren't necessary," comes director Richard Linklater's Bad News Bears (no "The" this time, for whatever reason). And in a pleasing turn of events, this update is just as good as the original. A few of the specific plot elements have been updated for a new generation, but the story is almost identical - even down to having a similar music score with similar music cues. We have the standard plot where the sloth of coach leads a scraggly gang of kids in some sport (baseball) and, while the team is horrible at first, things eventually turn around. It is the performance of lead Billy Bob Thornton though that saves the movie from being just another mindless retread.

Billy Bob is hilarious, more than holding his own against Walter Matthau's seminal performance as crusty Coach Buttermaker. His deadpan delivery is just right and his style fits well with the somewhat more risque nature of these Bears. This time Buttermaker is an exterminator, not a pool cleaner, and he's even a bit of a ladies' man. He beds one of the player's moms and even has a throng of groupies that cheer for the team at each game. A few of the players are different compared to the original film as well. There is still the fat Engelberg (Brandon Craggs), the bratty Tanner (Timmy Deters), and the booger-eating Lupus (Tyler Patrick Jones), but now the token Black kid likes Mark McGwire instead of Hank Aaron, and there is even a kid in a wheelchair. Overall, the kids on the team do a pretty good job. Kelly Leak (Jeffrey Davies), the ringer, is probably the weak spot. But I loved Lupus, who does a spot-on Ralph Wiggum impression for much of the film.

Linklater, the versatile auteur, who has created a wide variety of memorable films including Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise/Sunset, and School of Rock, has put his own touch on the movie. The MPAA rating may be PG-13, but this isn't exactly a family film. It's very rebellious in nature. But it's also clear that he has embraced The Bad News Bears that many of us have come to know well. There are a few nice referential moments, for example to Chico's Bail Bonds, which is no longer the sponsor of the Bears. The new sponsor is... well, let's just say that it's a bit more adult-oriented.

Most of the flaws in the original film hold true here, mainly since the plot is nearly the same. It definitely loses some points for originality. Many will wonder why this was necessary - and it wasn't - but it is a crowd pleaser and is very funny. Billy Bob could end up being typecast in pretty much the same role (a la this and Bad Santa) for the rest of his career and I'd still find it hilarious every time.

The Verdict: B.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Papillon (1973)

It was said to be hell on Earth, the place that no man could escape from. But one man was able to escape the penal colony on French Guiana (including Devil's Island). Not once, but several times. Henri Charriere (Steve McQueen), also known as Papillon for the striking butterfly tattoo on his chest, is sent there after being (wrongfully he says) convicted of murder. He befriends Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman), a strange man who is carrying serious loot inside his body and uses it to pay off guards and secure various amenities. Papillon soon decides that he wants to try to escape, and does but is recaptured and placed in solitary confinement for an incredible length of time. His heart and desire to be free never lets up though, and he spends a long time seeking the perfect escape.

The story sounds very exciting, in fact one that would make a great movie. Unfortunately this is not it. Papillon is a long-winded tale that is at least half an hour too long. It spends far too much time dabbling on unnecessary or unimportant plot points and is never sure what it is trying to be. It is at times at times a somber drama, an indigenous culture study, a buddy picture, a prison escape film, a mild romance, and a period piece. Though it is rarely more than one of these at a time. It is as if director Franklin Schaffner is saying, "Look! Now it's this! Next we're gonna try that!" Further, the musical score is too active and imposing, and not all that good. This is even more amazing in light of its Oscar nomination for best original score for 1973.

I do love the escape scenes though. They are a lot of fun and, well, the movie would have been better served to have spent more time on them. In prison escape pictures, there always seems to be a moment where the escapee(s) get stuck; something unexpected comes up because they just didn't think much further ahead then simply getting outside the gates. These moments can be the most powerful in the movie, because they show the freedom that comes with escape along the sheer vulnerability. Even though these people weren't exactly the nicest, most humanistic people (they were, after all, in prison), you find yourself pulling for Papillon to make it to safety. The movie does succeed in that regard. McQueen is his typical tough guy, loner antihero in a fairly convincing role. I was less impressed with Hoffman though. Dega is a likeable enough fellow as a "fruit", but like much of the movie, is played rather unevenly. Papillon is a disappointment.

The Verdict: C.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Director Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a classic work of science fiction, a prototype for countless other movies and television programs, including being a precursor to eerie sci-fi shows like The Twilight Zone and The X-Files.

The Invasion starts with a hysterical man, Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), screaming and complaining that he is not crazy and that nobody believes him, so he tells the story and the heart of the movie rolls. Something is amiss in a small town in Middle America. Miles needs to return home early from a conference because numerous people around town are concerned that their friends and family aren't who they are. It is just a "curious, unexplainable epidemic mass hysteria" though, as another doctor explains it, probably because people are worried about what's going on in the world. It's a silly explanation and soon enough, Miles and his friend Becky (Dana Wynter) learn the awful truth: that suspiciously extraterrestrial plant-like pods have been replicating all living beings. Things begin to get out of hand and the film makes a not-so-subtle commentary on the Red Scare era of the time.

It is interesting to note that Siegel did not like the prologue of the film, or the tacked on ending, though I don't think the ending is wholly unsatisfying. One problem I do have, given the flashback nature of much of the film, is that one short crucial scene which reveals a twist is not told from Miles' point of view. I think it could have been revealed later and would have been more stirring and effective (while maintaining the movie's structure). However, the film makes excellent use of music, with spot-on cues for suspense and terror shots. There are several great chills, which I'm sure sent many women into the arms of their man at the local drive-in theater back in the day. None of them deserved any awards, but the actors all do a credible job. The story in general is very compelling, but the script falters a little bit during a couple sappy, melodramatic scenes that were typical of the period.

Siegel and the filmmakers do a great job of showing that what should be normal - or at least what seems like normal - may not be. It may be cliched, but nothing is as it seems. Paranoia is paramount. This is a well-done picture that transcends the B-movie stigma and easily stands the test of time.

The Verdict: B+.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The Bad News Bears (1976)

Some people may look back on The Bad News Bears and wince at the bad clothing and hairstyles in the somewhat dated and very obvious 70s setting. Or they may recoil with bad memories of the two terrible sequels that were mercilessly spawned by the hit film. Others will complain that the story is derivative and has been done numerous times before. But the fact of the matter is that the original Bad News Bears is a sometimes hilarious, and often funny comedy. It even occasionally has thoughtful introspection and comment on the nature of competition in our society. Sure the time period makes the movie feel less clean and easier to look at then, say, if the film were to be remade today, but it makes no difference to the solid story. This is the forerunner to many modern sports films for the family, where the loveable loser leads a group of even bigger losers to unfathomable success.

In a somewhat hastily filmed beginning, we learn that Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau), an alcoholic pool cleaner and ex-minor league baseball player, has been hired by a local leader with the intent of coaching a team of downtrodden kids as sort of a community project. It's clear that Buttermaker is just doing it for the money. And who can blame him given how decrepit the team is, including the fat kid and the "booger-eating moron." In between swigs of his beer spiked with liquor, he manages to find some time to practice with the team in order to teach them a few things (like how to clean a pool and how to make a martini). The team is clearly awful but eventually the coach manages to bribe Amanda (Tatum O'Neal), a no-nonsense ringer, into pitching for the Bears and things start to come together.

Matthau is truly hilarious, yet understated, as the boozing coach. Some of the astonished looks on his face as he watches his team play are priceless. And he has great chemistry with the young ballplayers too. I especially like a scene where the team is having fielding practice and Matthau surprises them with a bunt, intended for the catcher to field. Director Michael Ritchie treats a number of details very matter-of-factly, such as with the team uniforms that the Bears keep clamoring for. Eventually Buttermaker comes through and gets them, but it isn't until a bit later that we see the sponsor: Chico's Bail Bonds, which is in stark contrast to the high profile sponsors of other teams like Denny's, Pizza Hut, and the local sporting good store.

It is very subtle, though quite interesting, how even Buttermaker begins to want to win. He verbally berates his players and at one point takes somewhat unethical measures to ensure success. Another team in the league is represented by a win-at-all-costs jerk, unfortunately so typical of many coaches and parents in little leagues today, yet the Bears have just as strong of a competitive spirit. In a movie filled with plenty of wacky moments and laughs, this fable is handled with a wink-wink, but it is nice to some depth to family comedies.

One fault of The Bad News Bears is that the actual baseball scenes are not all that well filmed. The movie is a bit unfocused with regards to the league standings and scores of some games (it's hard to be sure who is even winning the final game at one point). Further, it's rather incredible that the team starts to regress at one point, just because a new pitcher is in the game instead of Amanda. I also think the story would have been improved if juvenile delinquent Kelly Leak (Jackie Haley) had been more a subplot and less a featured attraction on the team.

All in all, The Bad News Bears is light-hearted tale of redemption and good times. If you’re looking for a baseball movie, look elsewhere. If for no other reason, see it for Matthau. End of the year awards voters are often criticized for not recognizing comedic performances more, and other than a BAFTA nomination, it's a darn shame that Matthau's role wasn't more acclaimed. Nearly 30 years later this holds up pretty well.

The Verdict: B.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

As millions of people around the world - children and adults - read the new Harry Potter book, I thought I would take a look back at the third, and most recent movie from that series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Certainly the plot of the story is well known, given the countless number of people who have read the book (or even listened to it on audiotape). Suffice to say, it's more of the same old, same old. Of course, we begin with Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) home with his terribly mean caretakers - though this time he finally leaves for good - and then there is a zany adventure as he makes his way to Hogwarts, the school for witchcraft and wizardry, for another year. As we have come to expect, there is also a new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor (David Thewliss). Meanwhile, the deadly murderer Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) who has escaped from Azkaban and intends to hunt down and kill Harry. Supernatural Dementors are now protecting Harry from Sirius, but strange things continue to happen to him and his pals, Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint).

I can't say what the differences are between the book and the movie, or what was included and what was not, or what was changed and what wasn't. And frankly, I don't care. What does it matter? As Ash Wakeman so eloquently pointed out in a recent Shaking Our Fists at the Sun column, books and film are two different mediums. Sure, the quality of the source material is important, but a movie needs to be able to stand on its own.

But there is quite a bit to appreciate about the movie. There are some very fun, first-rate special effects. The magic tricks, especially during one of the classes that Harry and the gang attend are very neat. A triple-decker bus early in the movie is a treat, and some of the oddball side characters are great too. I really like Oldman as the very creepy and mysterious, Sirius Black. The way I see it: if you cast Gary Oldman in a key supporting role, then you've made a very wise choice. Alan Rickman (in the role of Professor Snape) is fine too, but I can't help thinking of Hans Gruber when I see him on screen. The young actors are okay, especially Emma Watson, but I haven't cared much for Rupert Grint's performance in any of the three films.

Compared to the first two movies in the series, the Sorcerer's Stone and the Chamber of Secrets, the Prisoner of Azkaban is rather different in mode and tone. The director is different (with Alfonso Cuaron replacing Chris Columbus) and with this comes a different look for the design of Hogwarts. Very few long shots are used to establish time and place, which feels very awkward at times. And the pacing is slow and plodding. It is a very long 140 minutes, and often boring. I imagine that faithful readers of the books enjoy seeing things on screen that they only visually imagined when they were reading the story, but it only serves to bog the movies down by including so much. This feels all over the place, trying to accomplish ten different things at once. That's swell... another game of quidditch. What purpose does it serve right in the middle of the movie like that, other than to tack on another five minutes to the running time? Many things are completely unexplained; they may be answered in the book, but only servesto weaken this film laden with numerous plot holes in the confusing story.

I'm sure the books are great works of art, but based on the quality of the Harry Potter movies so far I don't imagine I'll be giving them a chance anytime soon. There are some great ideas, and some good acting, but overall things are just too sterile for a feature-length film. Especially if you aren't already a reader of the books. Actually, an original television series of Harry Potter adventures might be quite interesting. I'd watch that.

The Verdict: C+.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004)

The Assassination of Richard Nixon is based on a true story and documents the tale of Samuel Bicke, a down and out loser who has decided that he will exact revenge for his frustrations in life by hijacking an airplane and crashing it into the White House in order to kill R. Milhous Nixon. Sounds like fiction? Of course Bicke (Sean Penn) was not able to complete his mission... or rather "Byck", as the filmmaker's purposely changed the spelling of his name so that people would more easily make the comparison to another lost, deranged soul named Travis Bickle from Scorsese's Taxi Driver.

Director Niels Mueller's movie is set against the backdrop of the Watergate hearing, which are shown on television several times during the movie. Bicke is a furniture salesman, and a nice parallel is clearly drawn between the greedy, lying salesmen that he works with and the President. Bicke's boss even calls Nixon the best salesman in the world. Bicke hates what he is doing though; he has a conscience and hates lying to people. He eventually tells his story of why he did what he did via recorded cassette tapes that Bicke intends to mail to the Maestro, Leonard Bernstein (because he is the only one who would understand). This is shown near the beginning of the film, and then much of the movie is a flashback up to that point and voiceover narration from his recordings is used at times. The movie is sloppy and lazy in this regard; it could have done without it.

As Bicke, Sean Penn shows once again why he is Hollywood's finest actor working today. He is able to show an amazing array of emotions, including the anguish that goes along with a broken marriage and the terrifying - but scared - but behavior that he shows during his rampage. The movie is generally sympathetic to Bicke; he may be antisocial and bad in relationships, but seemingly has good intentions and has a string of bad luck. Clearly, though, he is also mentally unstable, and his life continues to tumble downward. Penn is also teamed with other very capable actors, including Don Cheadle as a friend of Bicke and Naomi Watts as his ex-wife, but the movie does not showcase them and their stories are eventually pushed under the rug.

With the idea of using an aircraft as a weapon, he sure was ahead of his time. Just imagine if he hadn't made a couple dumb decisions during his hijacking and had succeeded in his goal. Ultimately the film is a very solid character study. It generally succeeds in painting Bicke as not just a monster, but as a human being. He has dreams and wishes of his own, as well as problems and worries, just like most everyone else. I wouldn't call his story as good as Travis Bickle's, but it may be more interesting.

The Verdict: B.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The Stepford Wives (2004)

In another in a long line of dreadful movie remakes, is director Frank Oz' The Stepford Wives. This unsuccessful farce is a retread of the 1975 version starring Katharine Ross. In this version, Joanna (Nicole Kidman) is a successful television executive who has a nervous breakdown after a bad turn of events at an upfront for some new TV shows. So her husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) takes her and the kids to live in the storybook suburban town of Stepford, Connecticut. It is a large gated community with overwhelming big super McMansions, where the lawns are all perfectly manicured, the wives are all beautiful, proper, and obedient, and the husbands never seem to work. It soon becomes apparent that something is amiss; the women are just a little too perfect. In fact, they may just be robots.

There are a number of other big names in the film, including Glenn Close and Christopher Walken as a couple who are leaders of the town, and Bette Midler as one of the neighbors. Despite this solid casting, the acting from almost everyone is pretty much limp. Broderick seems lost and has almost zero chemistry with Kidman; he probably spent much of principal photography wishing it were 1987 again. Kidman is sort of uglied up to stand out and contrast her character from the other Stepfords, but physical transformation doesn't guarantee a good performance. I imagine any actress could have done the same lifeless job. Although, in fairness to Kidman, I suppose she does her best given the material she had to work with. But Walken has now become a parody of a parody of a parody. Midler provides a few of the scant laughs as a man-hating feminist writer.

On the technical side of things, Oz and team employ some very strange cuts. For example, one sudden fade out is used where they are obviously trying to portray a sense of mystery (i.e., character knows something, but the audience doesn't). But it is simply awkward and distracting. The most serious flaw, though, is the script. What could have been a clever send-up of the sterile, wholesome 1950s culture and male-female stereotypes is instead a flat and dull story that is irreparably unfunny. The commentary on reality TV in the beginning is okay, but has been done better many times before. After the main story gets rolling, it never seems sure what it wants to be. All hope is lost during the baffling ending that ends up spelling everything out for you piece by piece. It's truly an awful ending if there ever were one. This should be an embarrassment for both men and women of all stripes.

The Verdict: D+.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy is a stupid, stupid movie with a mediocre, almost non-existent plot. There is sexism, animal abuse, impromptu singing, Ben Stiller, bad hairstyles and clothing, and pure and utter random nonsense. It is also a darn funny movie, in which Will Ferrell showcases once again why he is one of the better comedic actors in film today.

Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) is the vain, mustachioed, top-ranked news anchor at the number one news station in San Diego in the 1970s. Life is good for him and the rest of the news team. That is, until the station manager uses that ugly word, "diversity." The problem is, nobody seems to know what diversity is ("it's an old wooden ship that was used during the Civil War era"), but a female named Veronica (Christina Applegate) is hired for the team and she becomes an instant hit with audiences. This causes a problem for Ron; don't they know that "it's anchorMAN not anchorLADY, and that is a scientific fact." An escalating war of words ensues and Ron and his crew must either adapt or perish.

Other than Ron, others on the news team are equally hilarious. There is Brick Tamland (Steve Carell), who is a brain dead weatherman with an IQ of 48; I'm not sure if it was intended this way or not, but it's a great riff on the colorful people who report the weather on TV. Champ Kind (David Koechner) is a manly sports anchor that carries a gun and Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd) also provides numerous laughs and hijinks as a reporter for the station. Most of the talent does a great job at playing things so matter-of-factly in this farce. Their tongues may be in their cheeks, but they don't show it.

There are also many cameo appearances. Some of them are good (Vince Vaughn, Tim Robbins), though some of them are a little distracting (Jack Black, Ben Stiller). Many of them converge in a great Western-style melee romp in the city streets. The crack newsmen from all of the local affiliates, including PBS and the Spanish station, get into a crazy fisticuffs battle that includes many random weapons. Even Brick, the moron, has a grenade! Things are moved along quite well by a surprisingly good 70s soundtrack.

Still, at some points the movie is a little too over-the-top for its own good. Ferrell is great, and he seems to do comedy so effortlessly, but it can still be annoying when he does his yelling-really-loud shtick. I think it would have been perfect if they had managed to include a reference to Peter Finch's great Howard Beale in Network ("I'm mad as hell..."), but alas we are not that lucky. Also, the film uses some narration, telling the story perhaps as in a documentary. However, the filmmakers seem to forget that they even did this later on, and the narrative technique is not used at all in the second half. In the end, the movie is just another Hollywood story. But, it's a pretty good story. And a funny one, too.

The Verdict: B-.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Welcome to Mooseport (2004)

Welcome to Mooseport feels like a feature-length sitcom, where all that is missing is a laugh track, an extra-special surprise guest star, a hit theme song, and the quirky next-door neighbor who pops in at unexpected moments. Unfortunately, it doesn't have any of those things. This is a very bland movie.

Monroe "The Eagle" Cole (Gene Hackman) is a very popular ex-President with an absurd 85% approval rating. His two terms are up, and he is divorced, so he retires to a small town in Maine. Naturally, Mooseport is without a mostly ceremonial mayor so of course the town leaders encourage Monroe to take the position. His advisors (including Marcia Gay Harden) don't think it's a good idea, but he accepts anyway. Unbeknownst to them, the local hardware store owner, Handy Harrison (Ray Romano) has filed for the job since he thought nobody else had and that it was his duty. This inevitably leads to a mayoral race, which eventually receives national attention. Monroe doesn't quite help matters when he flirts with Handy's longtime girlfriend (Maura Tierney) and takes her out to dinner. This leads to an all-out war, including two televised debates, and the former President's approval rating hanging in the balance.

The movie could have been a very inspired farce, but instead nearly everything about it is subpar - just like most sitcoms nowadays. The main problem was that I could never figure out who the movie wanted me to root for: David (Handy) or Goliath (Monroe)? In the first portion of the film, Monroe is definitely the lead character, and he is sympathetic and generally likeable (albeit a politician). Later, Handy gets more screen time and I guess we're supposed to feel sympathetic for him too. But I didn't, because he comes off as a dimwit, a fool, and generally a very boring man who I hoped that Monroe would physically beat up. But popular ex-Presidents don't do things like that, so we are subjected to the typical happy Hollywood ending that is hand fed to the audience. In the end, I'm not sure it mattered who we were supposed to root for, but I really didn't care.

To make matters worse, the supporting characters in the movie are very shallow and uninteresting. Perhaps director Donald Petrie should have been placed more focus on the townspeople, instead we get a lame subplot with the President's ex-wife (Christine Baranski), who is incredibly annoying and useless. And Fred Savage continues his career downfall by playing a brown nosing doofus on the former President's staff.

The movie takes a tired page from The Simpsons when, during a golf match between Monroe and Handy, there is found to be a strong similarity on the links between Monroe and C. Montgomery Burns. But, this leads into the funniest and best sequence in the movie. A quickly edited montage shows that Monroe did not in fact nab a 7 on the first hole, but actually a 15 - and all of them are replayed in humorous fashion. There isn't too much else to laugh about in this comedy, although Hackman gives his usual fine performance.

Although Welcome to Mooseport feels like a long sitcom, with the way it was written, it actually probably would have been best as a short 10-minute skit. Of course, a different actor in the role of Handy also might have helped. Everyone most definitely does not love Raymond… err, I mean Mooseport.

The Verdict: C-.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Caligula (1979)

Caligula is perhaps the most controversial, daring, obscene, and illicit "mainstream" movie in American history. If it were made and attempted to be theatrically released today, I imagine that ultra-right wing "family values" groups like the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family would probably spontaneously combust. In fact, it is truly a wonder how much "pornographic" material is in Caligula. Amazingly enough, it was actually a mild success upon its original release and may have earned more than $20 million domestically.

Though officially directed by Tinto Brass, Bob Guccione, the editor of Penthouse Magazine, was one of the film's producers and also filmed some of the scenes. This isn't just lightweight, softcore period-piece porn though, or Skinemax with a bigger budget. No, this movie actually includes some very, very explicit sexual content, nudity and violence. Some of the content is such that would most certainly be included in hardcore pornography today. To compare it to a somewhat more recent mainstream movie, Caligula makes Showgirls look like the Care Bears.

Caligula (Malcolm McDowell, perhaps best known as main character Alex in A Clockwork Orange) is a man during the ancient Roman Empire (circa 37-41 AD) who rises to emperor, and eventually wields godlike influence over Rome and its citizens. Caligula was a very lascivious fellow. He came to power through quite dubious means and engaged in many vulgar acts, including incest with his sister and other wretched excess. He was assassinated unmercifully after less than four years as the emperor. But the real stories told in Caligula focus on the orgies and bordellos that the man delighted himself in.

The acting, the story, the photography, the editing, and other components aren't that bad. Given the proper attention, and more professional treatment this could have made for a great picture. There are a number of relatively big actors in the movie, from Peter O'Toole to John Gielgud and Helen Mirren. And with pop icon Gore Vidal as the writer, the pedigree is definitely more reputable than your average smut. And the sex scenes are worthwhile... to an extent. Now, I'm not in favor of censorship and I don't believe in outlawing things solely because somebody doesn't like them or finds them offensive. But, clearly, there is zero artistic value in showing acts of penetration, urination, and several other -ations. These things weren't necessary to telling the story of Caligula. For whatever reason, they may be important to a story at times, but a good filmmaker knows when to cut and when to imply things, rather than being so explicit.

Note that there are several versions of the film out there. It has been released in severely edited R rated versions, in unrated form, and even a special three-and-a-half hour version that was screened just once at Cannes. In each case, you'll be watching a very flawed movie made for very selfish purposes. If you are watching it just for the "good parts", then you're really better off paying for actual porn. At least regular porn doesn't pretend to be anything else.

The Verdict: D+.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

War of the Worlds (2005)

Let's get this out of the way right from the beginning: Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds is not a very good movie.

From the time that a video camera works when just moments prior nothing worked, to a short time later when Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) and his family escape in a car that might just happen to be the only vehicle that works in the entire world at that time, right up to the obligatory Spielberg happy ending - almost nothing was believable. Whether that is the fault of the source material or the filmmaker's, I don't know for sure. But I do know that it does not help the credibility for or enjoyment of the movie.

The film is based on H.G. Wells' classic tale of Earth being invaded by hostile beings from another world. It has been done before on the big screen, and is actually perhaps most well known for Orson Welles' infamous radio broadcast in 1938 that caused mass hysteria in New Jersey (because many people thought it was real). Like the book, the movie focuses mainly on one family (father Ray, and estranged children Rachel and Robbie) who try desperately to survive. The invasion is very sudden; at first news reports suggest that the numerous bolts of lightening is just a strange weather phenomenon. Soon enough, though, the Ferriers are on the run, trying to head from the New York area up to Boston (where the kid's pregnant mother and new stepfather are). The destruction is immense, and death is everywhere. At first it appears that the creatures are simply trying to kill everyone, but we later learn that they have other plans.

Along their trek, the family comes upon Ogilvy (Tim Robbins), an armed man, who takes them into his cellar to stay. This is where the movie has a chance to redeem itself for its earlier missteps but its just more frustration. There is one scene where one of the alien creatures is searching the house for human life and they must try to evade its sight. It's rather neat, but pretty much the same thing (that was done better) that Spielberg did in Jurassic Park and later in Minority Report. The rest of the time spent in the cellar is rather dull and a confrontation only serves to make the audience distance themselves from Ray, which I'm sure wasn't what was intended. After that, the quest continues for the happy ending.

Since nearly the entire movie is from the point of view of Ray, Spielberg - to his credit - seems to go out of his way to give very little explanation about what is going on with the aliens. But this just makes things all the more disappointing when we are given voice-over narration at the very end to explain what just happened. It is very amateurish, and something that I would sooner expect from a B-list director.

Sure enough, Spielberg still is one of the all-time great directors, so there are plenty of things to like about the movie. The special effects are first-rate during the attack sequences, especially the sound, which is very good throughout the movie. Shots of a train that rolls by a train station while on fire, and a ferryboat tipping over are seamless eye candy. And the aliens are quite interesting looking, though they are only seen very briefly. I was less impressed though by the big robotic tripod things that destroy everything; they look like giant robotic jellyfish.

Further, as we have come to expect from her, Dakota Fanning is light years ahead of her age in acting ability. Who is to say what the teen years will do to her, and if she will still have it when she reaches adulthood, but she makes it all seem so natural when she is on screen. Sure, her character screams a lot in the film, but I would imagine that a lot of 10 year-olds would be freaked out by an alien invasion and human extermination. On the other hand, I was generally able to look past Tom Cruise's real life persona of a superstar who has become deranged and psychotic; he does his usual decent job. But it's hard to really feel much empathy for his character given that he is a kind of a jerk, selfish, and a rather bad father. (And, as with most Tom Cruise films, he tries to redeem himself by the end.)

But War of the Worlds does not redeem itself. At least movies like Independence Day don't try to take themselves so seriously. By the end, I was kind of hoping that the humans would all be destroyed. This isn't a terrible movie; I can think of worse ways to kill two hours. But it is definitely a black mark on Spielberg's record, and is one of his worst.

The Verdict: C.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005)

You may have been sick of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie given that they were daily tabloid fodder prior to the theatrical release of their recent movie, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but rest assured that it is a fun, enjoyable (albeit mindless) motion picture. Director Doug Liman does an interesting thing and starts the movie with John and Jane Smith sitting and facing the camera, answering personal questions from an interviewer - obviously a marriage therapist. It is humorous, and seems rather tongue-in-cheek given the real life news, and this set-up is used several times during the film. The Smiths are in therapy to try to improve their marriage because, as we soon learn, they have a bit of difficulty being honest with each other. In fact, neither is aware that the other is a professional assassin.

Worlds collide when John and Jane each get the same assignment and they each end up botching the others work. They each soon learn the truth and their marriage of 5 (or 6) years is put to the test when they realize that they will have to kill the other one.

The movie has good chemistry between Brad and Angelina (or: Bragelina). In fact, perhaps in part due to this, the movie is at its best when it focuses on the subtle marital and other domestic issues between the Smiths (like bickering over the curtains in the living room). One brief, but great, shot shows Jane Smith holding a neighbor's baby; the bewildered look on her face is priceless and is even more comical when John sees this from across the room and does a double take. I actually prefer these scenes more than some of the full-blown action sequences.

Vince Vaughn is wonderful as the smart aleck sidekick, as usual. Though it is a shame that he is not used nearly enough in the second half of the film.

However, moments of phenomenal unbelievability stop the movie from taking the next step to being any better than a "pretty good" movie. It is incomprehensible and thoroughly dumbfounding how this couple could go so long without knowing the others secret, especially given how many secret stashes of weapons each has throughout their house and garage. The neighbors are even more clueless. The quick changes in mutual feelings between the two characters is also a little hard to accept. And thinking too hard about the industry of assassins in this film will make the head spin (like who are these mysterious people hiring them, and how are they able to operate without worrying about consequences of the law?).

There are a number of obvious movie references in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. The film turns into a sort of War of the Roses at one point, though whether that is good or bad will certainly vary from person to person. And of course, much of the premise is evocative of True Lies. There is also a seeming nod to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid near the end. It is quite arrogant, actually, as that classic ended perfectly. Whereas this movie clearly has an eye on a sequel as, among many one-liners in the film, one character claims that "happy endings are just stories that haven't finished." Indubitably.

The Verdict: B-.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

The Milagro Beanfield War

In light of the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows local governments to seize private homes and businesses for economic development (i.e., "eminent domain"), in addition to the fights in many suburban towns to keep large businesses (read: WalMart) out, The Milagro Beanfield War seems quite relevant today. The picturesque movie is a lighthearted tale about quiet, poor little town in New Mexico that is threatened by zealous land developers bent on building a resort and country club in town. Most of the working class town would have to eventually move as the club, and all that comes with it, would likely increase property taxes beyond their means. The townspeople, who can never seem to agree on anything, are wildly split over what to do about this issue. But nearly everything seems to be in place for the resort to be built, except for stubborn peasant Joe (Chick Vennera) who owns and farms a beanfield. The developers clearly have law enforcement in their back pockets and a hell bent state police cowboy is dispatched to solve the problem, which only leads to further skirmishes in this pending war.

Some of the familiar faces in the fairly large cast include Christopher Walken as the ruthless state trooper, John Heard as a local newspaper publisher and lawyer, Daniel Stern as a sociologist, Melanie Griffith as a hussy, M. Emmett Walsh as the governor, and James Gammon (of course best known as Tire World employee Lou Brown in Major League).

This Robert Redford directed movie feels like a John Sayles picture in many ways; it is a story about a quirky group of people in a small town, there are a couple overlapping subplots, which makes use of the large cast. The problem is that unlike most Sayles movies, the characters and plots aren't developed fully enough. In particular, the land developers and their posse in the beanfield war are rather one-dimensional and the large cast is wasted in that regard. The movie also has elements of many harmless British comedies - I am especially reminded of The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill, But Came Down a Mountain with Hugh Grant. The problem with that, though, is that Beanfield is not strictly a comedy and its characters are generally not as jolly or carefree.

There are a number of good things about The Milagro Beanfield War nonetheless. A local pig is used for good comic effect, providing for a few hilarious moments, and is even important to the plot at one point. And an interesting concept in the film is the strange mysticism in the air in, especially around a crazy old man, perhaps suggesting that Milagro has a destiny that is bound to be fulfilled. The lead actors are fairly convincing, especially Chick Vennera as farmer Joe. Also, the off-beat musical score is very effective at helping to develop the light atmosphere in Milagro, in fact it won the Academy Award for best original score of 1988.

It should be noted that almost inexplicably the movie received a restricted ("R") rating from the MPAA. It is unquestionably one of the tamed R-rated films ever, with perhaps 3 f-words and some very mild violence, it is certainly not something that I would hesitate to show to older children. This is generally an enjoyable movie, with an interesting story; I just wish that the filmmaker's had scaled back the number of characters a little in order to focus more on those that mattered.

The Verdict: C+.


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