"That's a nice-a donut."

Sunday, October 30, 2005

The Wizard of Oz (1925)

When you mention The Wizard of Oz, of course most people immediately think of Victor Fleming's black and white and Technicolor classic from 1939. But there have actually been numerous iterations of the fantasy tale about young Dorothy and her band of outcasts, including several shorts and feature-length versions during the silent era. One of them is director and star Larry Semon's 1925 adaptation, which appears on the new gorgeous three-disc set for The Wizard of Oz.

Much of this Oz is quite different than the one that we all know. For starters, Semon (who is also the Scarecrow and several other characters) is more or less the feature character, instead of Dorothy. Also, the structure is different; here a toymaker (Semon again) is reading the story to his daughter. There are two main components to the story: the first focuses on the rulers of the Land of Oz There is the noble Prince Kynd, and the dastardly Prime Minister Kruel (the latter of whom reminded me of a strange cross between Mike Myers' Goldmember and Commandant Mauser from Police Academy 2 and 3. The second focuses on Dorothy (Dorothy Dwan) and her family back in Kansas. As it turns out, when she was a baby, Dorothy was left on the doorstep of Auntie Em and Uncle Henry and she is actually a princess in Oz. Through a contrived turn of events, Dorothy, her promising suitor, a friendly neighbor (Semon), and a farmhand all end up in Oz. Kynd welcomes the group, and is happy that the princess has returned after 18 years. Kruel, however, is bent on ruling the kingdom and tries to have them imprisoned. Throw in a fake wizard, who has the suitor (the Tin Man), the neighbor (the Scarecrow), and the farmhand (the Lion) all disguise themselves, and you have a very weird and discombobulated story.

There is a lot of slapdashery in this Oz, obviously aiming for humor and laughs, and it succeeds to some degree. There are some effects that are actually quite good (at least for 80 years ago), and there are a few fun chase sequences. I also enjoyed the different tints that are used: a brownish hue for outdoor scenes and a calmer, cleaner look for inside. The real attention, though, is on Semon. His impish scarecrow is okay, but the lack of focus hurts the movie. Auntie Em disappears and becomes a nonfactor, as does the Tin Man and, well, much of the movie after everyone is in Oz is rather random and not very story-driven. I appreciate Semon's attempt, and I actually rather enjoyed the Kansas scenes. But it is Oz where I was left scratching my head. If you use Fleming's landmark pictures as the sole basis of judgment for this precursor, you will be severely disappointed.

The Verdict: C.

Friday, October 28, 2005

I (Heart) Huckabees (2004)

I (Heart) Huckabees is a very strange and unusual dark comedy that dares delve into the heavy realm of philosophy and the meaning of things. Director David O. Russell (his resume includes the indy hit Spanking the Monkey and one of the few movies on the Gulf War, Three Kings) tries to follow in the footsteps of such smart, but wacky, comedies as Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman's Being John Malkovich.

Albert (Jason Schwartzman), a conservationist who heads a coalition to preserve open spaces, has run into the same stick-thin seven-foot tall man three times recently. He is determined to find out if this is a meaningless coincidence or if there is a deeper meaning behind the appearances, so he consults a pair of existential detectives. The quirky husband and wife team of Vivian (Lily Tomlin) and Bernard Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman) have a myriad of unusual investigative methods, but their main focus is on following Albert and observing everything that he does. Meanwhile, Brad (Jude Law) is an executive at Huckabees, a Wal-Mart / Target type of superstore, who manages to schmooze his way onto the open spaces group. Enter: Tommy (Mark Wahlberg) a green, idealistic Socialist firefighter who is also a client of the Jaffes' and is deemed to be Albert's "other." While Albert is fighting with Brad over Huckabees and open spaces, he and Tommy ditch the existential detectives and start talking with a French woman who has a different view on things. It's a mishmash adventure, and we wonder if anything will be solved or if Albert will find out what he needs to know.

There are several funny moments in the film. Like Tommy riding his bike to a fire, as the rest of his fellow firefighters take the traditional way of the truck, and he ends up getting there first. And there are lifesize cutouts throughout the Huckabees offices, including Pete Sampras and the omnipresent Shania Twain. There's no reason for them; it's just ridiculous. Hoffman's Bernard is funny more for his unkempt hairstyle than anything else, but he seems to be having a good time and is fun to watch. The Jaffes have no humility, and do not appear to be embarrassed or hesitant about anything.

But whenever Huckabees got going into a groove and I started to settle in and enjoy it (which was several times), it looses focus and becomes a rambling mess. Perhaps this was even intentional. Nevertheless, the French woman throws the story off-kilter for good, and it never really recovers. Have I mentioned that Naomi Watts is also in this? She is, as a girlfriend of Brad's who also works for Huckabees. As with many things in the movie though, her role is unclear and pointless. She seems to be used solely to improve the big star quotient.

One technique Russell uses several times is to have Albert envision things, or other characters, as sort of many parts to a greater puzzle. It's like a higher-level pseudo-intellectual take on philosophy that is so far removed from anything intelligible, that it must be hip, right? In rather trippy fashion we see, for example, someone's mouth and eyes decomposed into an array of small squares, in very cartoon-like fashion. It's hard to explain or envision, but then so is much of the film. In the end, Huckabees is to be commended for being rather original and vaguely inspired, but it is hair-pulling in its aloofness and ultimate lack of focus. I've never seen philosophy be so shallow before. This is oddity and eccentricity just for the sake of it. It's destined to be a love-it or hate-it cult classic.

The Verdict: C-.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Something for Joey (1977)

The popular made-for-television movie Something for Joey chronicles the story of 1970s Penn State football running back John Cappelletti, the school's first (and, so far, only) recipient of college football's highest individual honor: the Heisman trophy. What makes this story more interesting than the typical sports tale is the close relationship between John and his younger brother, Joey, a young boy inflicted with leukemia.

The film starts out with Cappelletti (Marc Singer) as a promising sophomore on a very good team, but having to wait his turn in a crowded backfield that included greats Lydell Mitchell and Franco Harris. From the start, we see that John has a close bond with Joey (Jeff Lynas), who is given special treatment and even allowed inside the team locker room and to watch team practices. While John is caring for his younger brother, who is often sick - he stays home during the summer and comes home on many non-football weekends - Joey is John's biggest fan. The two share a deep bond, and it seems to carry them both further. By his senior year, John is the big star on a team that coach Paterno would consider one of his best ever. Just as the boast sunk in Titanic, John wins the Heisman and gives of the more memorable speeches in sports history, wherein he dedicated the award to his best friend.

Make no mistake; this is more of a friendly love story than a sports movie. The sports scenes are all taken directly from actual game footage (with the exception of a few brief practice scenes and some close-up crowd shots that were specifically filmed for the movie), and are shown in a concise, matter-of-fact manner. One of Something for Joey's better moments is when John promises four touchdowns to Joey for his birthday. He easily scores three, but is pulled prior to halftime. When word reaches JoePa about this, he is put back in and scores. (And he would later promise four again that season, and do it again!)

But the real emphasis is on the Cappelletti family. While Joey's parents and other siblings all get their share of screen time, with the exception of the mother, they are mostly just their to fill the story and are not given much characterization. Longtime actress Geraldine Page (who in later years would go on to win an Oscar for best actress) portrays the good-willed mother who must deal with the sickness and sadness, but still keep the family strong and support John along the way. Her role isn't showy, and is quite believable. I appreciated that, while there are some tender moments and it could certainly fit the bill as a "tear jerker" by the end, the movie never becomes too sappy or trite.

There are a number of interesting curiosities in the movie. First, of course, is a younger Steve Guttenberg playing one of the brothers. He gives an okay performance in the small role, but shows none of the flair and Shakespearean talent that he would later bring to the Police Academy movies. There is also plenty of nostalgia, mainly for fans of Dear Old State. One is the sight of Joe Paterno being depicted by someone else (Paul Picerni). He is just a minor aside in the John-Joey story, but it is humorous nevertheless. There are also a few shots of familiar landmarks on the Penn State campus from that time.

I don't buy into the saying that if you don't cry at the end of this movie that you aren't a human, or that you have no soul. But this is a good, solid movie that easily elevates itself above most television fare. Oh, and you think the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) is controversial now? Try the olden days, when the championship was awarded solely based on the polls, where an undefeated Nittany Lion squad finished 5th.

The Verdict: B.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Interpreter (2005)

Director Sidney Pollack is no stranger to the thriller genre of film; he has led such big names as Robert Redford as a CIA researcher who finds his coworkers dead one day in Three Days of the Condor, and Tom Cruise as a lawyer in over his head in The Firm. With The Interpreter he returns to the explosive political arena, like with Condor, but to mixed results.

A good portion of The Interpreter takes places inside the United Nations, one of the few movies that have been allowed to film there. It is where Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman), formerly of the volatile (and fictional) African country Matabo, is an interpreter. In a place of high-level diplomats and international leaders, she is privy to many important conversations and witness to many crucial speeches and meetings. One night as she is leaving the office she overhears two men talking in her native African language and what she thinks is talk about an assassination attempt on the controversial leader of that country. After reporting the incident, a team from the Secret Service gets involved; not simply investigating the possible plot, but also to determine if Silvia is being truthful or not. Agent Keller (Sean Penn) uncovers details about Silvia's shady past, but eventually warms up to her and begins to protect her. As the big day of the attempt arrives (the leader is scheduled to give a speech), things start to heat up and Silvia's life is threatened.

As interesting and relevant of a plot that it is, The Interpreter is generally disappointing on several levels. First of all, the key scene at the end is highly unbelievable: almost comically so. The political drama - I hesitate to call it a thriller - is very convoluted and misguided in its approach. First, I never really bought the relationship between Penn and Kidman. First he thinks that she is a lying threat, and just like that he is protecting her and caring deeply about her? I don't know if it was Penn's fault, Kidman's fault, Pollack's fault, or the script's fault, but it put a serious damper on the movie and weakened its potential impact.

A number of things make no sense. Why was so much emphasis placed on investigating Silvia, and so little on finding the possible culprits? Why were they at the UN to begin with? Why are there seemingly so many people with access to the UN who speak the rare Mataboan language (which probably a total of three people in the English-speaking world can understand)? Why, for that matter, didn't they just use a real country and a real language? Why the contrived and unneeded subplot about Keller and his family? Why does it take so long for anybody to die? Why were the bad guys so stupid?

In the end, The Interpreter can be fun if you are there to simply enjoy a pair of our leading actors work together. And if you are a fan of political intrigue, then it may be up your alley as well. The movie looks nice, and the scenes on the main floor of the UN are a real treat. But if you want a smart story, with tight plotting, and edge-of-your-seat suspense, then look elsewhere. Or even take a look at Pollack's high point in Three Days of the Condor instead. Because the political thriller may soon be a thing of the past.

The Verdict: C.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Wall Street (1987)

Wall Street is Oliver Stone's opus on the high-stakes, dog-eat-dog world of 1980s New York and the financial industry. The movie has since been sort of deconstructed into a single, very familiar line from a speech by the infamous Gordon Gekko ("greed is good"), but it goes deeper than that. A sure-footed script, along with some steady performances, and a nice soundtrack help turn it into a success.

Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) is a young go-getter who works for a stock brokerage in Manhattan and is constantly trying to get a meeting with Mr. Gekko (Michael Douglas), whom he believes is his ticket to the big time. After much persistence, they eventually meet and Bud convinces him to buy some stock through him. It's actually an inside deal, as Bud's blue-collar father Carl (Martin Sheen) is a mechanic with Blue Star Airlines, which recently was on the side of a favorable ruling by the FAA. Sure enough the stock goes up and Bud is on the fast track to success, courtesy of Gekko's mentorship. He is quickly winning sales records for his office, buying a coveted high-rise condo, and schmoozing with rich men and alluring women.

Many of the business scenes, such as on the floor of the stock exchange or on the phones in the brokerage offices, are among the best in the movie. Some of the movie became instantly dated with the liberal use of 80s fashions and the now-hilariously old computer models, but the frenetic Wall Street office environments and the visible stress that many coworkers show defy time, and are very relatable. What may be more striking for many viewers though, is the lust for money and status that these sharks have and how easily people can become seduced and overcome by greed. Stone builds much of the movie on this premise. It works for the most part, but the ending is rather sudden and a little too audience-friendly.

Douglas is very convincing as Gekko, and has more or less built his subsequent career on playing the role of the upper-class wealthy middle-aged man. He won the Academy Award as a lead actor for this, though it should be noted that (a) his Gekko plays more of a supporting role to Bud, and (b) he won solely based on his scene-stealing greed speech. Charlie Sheen more than holds his own though and, watching this again, I am left to wonder why his career took such a downward path. He was a bit of a bad boy for a period, but certainly nothing worse than what Russell Crowe does on any given night. In any case, he brings an innocent charm to the role that helps to identify with his character. You might be angry with him for turning to the dark side, but you can at least go along with it and try to understand it.

I wish that Stone had spent more time on the relationship between Bud and his father. Foreshadowing his tenure in The West Wing, Martin's Carl is a working man with an idealistic mind, and it would have been very interesting to learn about what drove Bud to Wall Street and about how it affected Carl. What drove Bud to buy into the lifestyle of greed? You'll just have to answer that on your own. And, by the way, the quote is actually: "greed, for lack of a better word, is good." Do you agree?

The Verdict: B+.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005)

George Clooney has followed up his interesting and ambitious, but ultimately a let-down, directorial debut Confessions of a Dangerous Mind - allegedly based on a true story - with another movie based on a true story. This time, though, the result is much better. Good Night, and Good Luck. is a simple, but very thought-provoking, expose on television newscaster Edward R. Murrow and his battle with Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.

Clooney has crafted a romanticized notion of TV news broadcasts of yesteryear. In the many smoke-filled rooms we witness a journalism team that has prospered on truth, integrity and good old-fashioned reporting. It is a sly wink to the audience that Murrow (David Strathairn) is rarely seen on screen without a cigarette; it's rather funny because people would be aghast if someone were to do that on TV now. But yet people don't do that anymore and the world and the state of the news certainly isn't any better. But back in those lonely days in 1953 and 1954, Murrow and his friend and producer Fred Friendly (Clooney) began to slowly realize that there was more to McCarthy's Red Scare than just some un-American Commies being fingered. This was a witch-hunt, pure and simple, and the methods and tactics being used by the senator seemed highly questionable. The normally independent and moderate "See it Now" team must contend with cries of partisanship, threats to lose their big sponsor, pressure from CBS executive William Paley (Frank Langella) and even the possibility of being outed themselves. Eventually McCarthy (with no live actor, but solely through archival footage) appears on the program.

Of course, much of the movie is a clear parallel to the current ongoing situation with the United States government and detainees in prison at Guantanamo Base in Cuba and elsewhere. Just as civil liberties are being trampled upon in the name of national security, the Red Scare was manifested under the guise of patriotism and security during the Cold War. Just as a vocal minority fights Bush Administration efforts to hold people indefinitely without being charged, Murrow fought the unjust methods that McCarthy used. Perhaps they were (or are) a threat but let's play fair.

Regardless of how you feel about all that, Good Night brilliantly succeeds in creating an air of tension, discovery, and anticipation all in one. Waiting for the first "See it Now" show in which McCarthy appeared was like waiting for the Super Bowl or a boxing heavyweight title fight, or other highly buzzed-about sporting event to begin. Something like that would never happen in the Internet Age, as Murrow and McCarthy would simply fire shots at each other in the press (or perhaps on their blogs), and people would quickly take sides regardless of the facts. Even if McCarthy did appear on Murrow's show, it would likely just be a matter of highly rehearsed talking points that had little to do with the actual topic at hand.

The cast is note-perfect from performance to performance, but Strathairn is completely convincing as Murrow. One flaw though is that perhaps it uses too much news footage. It was an interesting decision to not cast the role of McCarthy and to instead show him solely from news clips. But this, plus a lengthy piece of footage that aired on "See it Now," casts the shadow of a documentary on the movie. Regardless, Good Night effectively creates a stirring recreation of television's high point.

The Verdict: A-.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Fever Pitch (2005)

Unlike the movie adaptation of author Nick Hornsby's beloved High Fidelity, which hilariously showed that an obsession could be real, healthy, relatable, and even a normal part of life, the adaptation of his Fever Pitch unwittingly shows that an obsession can be fake, annoying, and dull. Directed by the Farrelly brothers, Bobby and Peter, this version of the book (there was also a British one released in 1997) abandons the football (a.k.a. soccer) formula and focuses on one man’s baseball obsession in the midst of a promising relationship.

Ben (Jimmy Fallon) has been a die-hard Red Sox fan ever since he was seven years old; he has lived through much heartache and suffering by the hands of such villains as Bucky Dent and Bill Buckner. Other than that he seems to be a standout decent guy, and even teaches at a high-school, so successful business executive Lindsey (Drew Barrymore) quickly falls for him one Autumn. Things move along into a pretty straightforward romance until Spring Training arrives. That is when Lindsey realizes that his affection for the Sox goes further than just his apartment setup (which looks more like a memorabilia shop) or his prized season tickets not far from the dugout. Ben clearly has an obsession, but they like each other and Lindsey sticks with him, even going to some games with him. Their relationship soon mirrors the 2004 Red Sox regular season, with its ups and downs, but eventually Ben must make a choice between the team he loves and the woman he likes. As you might expect, it's not too hard to predict what happens.

The baseball scenes are literally straight out of FOX, including the loathsome announcers and baseball studio crew. And that is a very bad thing, especially considering that what masquerades as a date movie is really a baseball movie with some romance thrown in for good measure. But it's not very good at that; as far as baseball movies go, Fever Pitch is only mildly better than such tripe as Major League II. This is more an ode to Red Sox nation than a compelling romantic comedy.

One thing I did like about Fever Pitch is that it shines some light on the sports phenomenon in general, and the near-obsessiveness that many sports fans have when it comes to their favorite teams (or players). After all, everyone has heard about some guy who missed half of his own wedding to secretly watch or listen to a game in the hotel bar. The draft day that Ben holds for his friends before every season to determine which home games each person will get tickets for is quite humorous. Fallon comes off as a bit creepy; he just doesn't work as a leading romantic man. Barrymore does her usual - it's the same character of hers that we've seen several times before, even her success with Adam Sandler in The Wedding Singer. It's old, but we like it anyway.

But skipping a trip to Paris for a game? That's sick and only serves to distance the viewer from really caring about the relationship. I don't know too many Sox fans, but I'd wager that most of the faithful would be quite embarrassed and would try to distance themselves from this chump. Whereas as High Fidelity's Rob Gordon led the way for a near-perfect Top 5 hit, Ben and Lindsey merely tap a soft grounder back to the mound.

The Verdict: C.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Slap Shot (1977)

In the opening scene of George Roy Hill's Slap Shot, a hockey player gives a TV interview in which he demonstrates several dangerous, penalty-enforced actions in the game of hockey such as high-sticking, hooking, slashing, and spearing. The humorous display gives just a brief taste of things to come in a wild, often outrageous, satire about the world of professional ice hockey and its dedicated fans. One might imagine the movie as sort of a redheaded stepchild cross between Caddyshack and Major League, though both later films surely drew some inspiration from this cult hit.

Paul Newman teamed up with his favorite director once again as Reggie Dunlop, an aging player-coach of the small-town minor league hockey Charleston Chiefs. The team is horrible, attendance is abysmal, and the owner is threatening to disband the team after the season. Eventually a threesome of nerdy eyeglass wearing, look-alike brothers (who literally packed their suitcases with toys) join the team. They are the Hanson brothers and what they know and love is hockey. More to the point, they love playing dirty hockey. Soon enough Reggie is encouraging the Hansons and other players on the team to play aggressive and rough and attendance begins to skyrocket. And the team starts winning. Not a game goes by without bloodied noses and uniforms, and we even witness a crowd brouhaha that bested the infamous Ron Artest incident by more than 25 years. The amazing thing is that many elements in the movie are based on actual events.

The Hanson brothers steal every scene they are in. Their raw, unabashed passion for the game is a shameless delight to watch and shows how someone could get so caught up in the sport. They, along with the many funny-looking villains on opposing teams that the Chiefs play, perfectly exemplify your stereotypical hockey goons. These are the brutes that are often on the teams not so much for their puck handling, passing, shooting, or perhaps defensive skills, but solely to give beatings and to scare the living daylights out of other players.

For better or worse though, other than Reggie, there is very little character development in Slap Shot. Most of the players and bloodthirsty fans are little more than vulgar, soulless cretins. The language spewing out of mouths would make a sailor blush, and the putdowns and trash talk come fast and furious. Make no mistake, this is not intended to be a muckraking indictment on hockey. Rather it serves as a fun, crowd-pleasing joyride where nobody in the game is left unmarred by jokes - not the players, the management, the fans, the reporters, or even the players' significant others. Just think of the title: Slap Shot or slap stick? Even the soundtrack seems to be a joke. It starts off with a then-current array of 70s pop hits, and then dovetails into a curious, repetitive use of "Right Back Where We Started From" by Maxine Nightingale, which seems to be totally out of sync with the theme of hockey and violence.

But this isn't supposed to be serious, this is hockey. Oldtime hockey. And it could almost make a non-Canuck take interest in it.

The Verdict: B-.

Monday, October 10, 2005

The Eiger Sanction (1975)

Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry has left his job as a renegade police detective and is a world-traveling art scholar by day and a grizzled old assassin by night in The Eiger Sanction. Well, for obvious reasons, the character isn't actually named Harry but rather the much more distinguished Dr. Jonathan Hemlock. In fact his background as a shoot first, ask questions later, cop is never even alluded to. It may not even actually be the same man, but as Hemlock Eastwood turns to the same basic character model that he would play to success throughout his career (along with his stone-faced cowboy from Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns). With The Eiger Sanction, director Eastwood (in one of his earlier directorial efforts) attempted to fashion his "Harry" into a more sophisticated role in a different genre (read: not Cops and Robbers or Cowboys and Indians).

It's not a film that is easy to place into a well-defined category. Dr. Hemlock is a renowned art history professor - with an impressive collection of his own - who happens to also be in the business of wet works. He is sometimes hired by a secretive organization to carry out assassinations for the government, though he is clear that he does it solely to finance his expensive lust for art. He is sort of a precursor to Indiana Jones in this regard, not for what he does, but for the fact that he is a scholar by trade and a sort of adventurer on the side. And a ladies man too, as he is seduced by a beautiful stewardess named Jemima (Vonetta McGee) and later by George (Brenda Venus) a beautiful near-mute woman who helps him to train for an upcoming mountain climbing expedition.

The reason for the expedition is rather convoluted and questionable, though this and other holes with the plot may date back to the book that the movie is adapted from. In any case, Hemlock is blackmailed by the leader of the secret organization (a "bloodless freak" with an aversion to light) to carry out a sanction on someone on a climb up the treacherous Mt. Eiger. The identity of the target is unknown, so Hemlock must figure out which of his fellow climbers must be eliminated.

The movie is well-shot, especially during the mountain scenes, with some very nice looking scenery to boot. I liked Hemlock, though I kept imagining how in the world Harry Callahan could be an art connoisseur. Eastwood brings his trademark wit and has a number of funny deadpan lines, like "You forgot the 42 cents," after the bloodless freak quotes Hemlock's checking account balance. George Kennedy (who in recent times is best remembered as an inept cop in the Naked Gun movies) is also a riot as a beer-drinking carefree old friend when he is first introduced, playing the comic foil quite nicely. But his character loses some of the polish and doesn't do much once the Eiger scenes commence. Moreover, by the time we reach Eiger, the movie seems to have trouble deciding what genre it is: a mystery thriller or a rock climbing adventure.

On their own terms, the different pieces of the movie are solid and work well. The problem is that the pieces don't add up. By the end, after a resolution that is a letdown and rather dismal, we are left wondering how a promising work could become such a bloated mess. And on another note, for some reason, the opening credits have possibly the worst font ever on film; the words are nearly unreadable as the letters blend together. It's a shame the movie didn't blend as well.

The Verdict: C+.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Favorite Movies of 2005 ...So Far

With the year 2005 more than three-quarters complete, I thought it might be an appropriate time to take a look at where we stand on the movie releases so far. Just as disappointing box office figures dominated movie discussions for most of the summer, the quality of this year's movies has left something to be desired as well. I tend to be rather selective about which movies look worth paying to see in theaters, so I'm still catching up on many of the early-year releases that are finally making their way to DVD. But nevertheless there haven't been any truly great movies yet in 2005. A few have been very good, many have been entertaining, but so far none appear to be destined for classic status. It's somewhat telling that many of the better films this year have been documentaries or movies not released theatrically. Let's hope the end-of-year awards season will bring with it some worthy choices.

1) Sin City
A visually brilliant film, but sputters a bit in the overlong second story.

2) Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson
This two-part PBS documentary is a very thorough and endlessly interesting account of the first great minority boxer.

3) Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
An astonishing account of the infamous scandal that will leave many shaking their fists at greed and immorality of Kenny Boy and company.

4) Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
Lucas scores with the final prequel, but dialogue and other problems persist.

5) Batman Begins
Character development trumps action and fanboys everywhere can finally forget about Batman and Robin.

6) Crash
A great ensemble piece with some of the best acting of the year.

7) Land of the Dead
Romero exceeds expectations in this gruesome zombie tale, but the humans are the weakest link.

8) Bad News Bears
Billy Bob steals the show, but the plot and story is pretty much the same as the original.

9) Family Guy Presents - Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story
The straight to DVD movie is really just a sequence of three related episodes, but the show's trademark wit and outrageous humor will leave you satisfied.

10) Warm Springs
This drama about a young FDR is, like most HBO original movies, well-acted and leaves you satisfied.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Robots (2005)

Sometime near the beginning of the CGI-animated film Robots, instead of making their way into Robot City in a taxicab, the two lead characters enter on an amusing thrill ride in a series of contraptions that is very reminiscent of the old game Mouse Trap. This is a retroistic movie, using a stylish 1950s old-time look and feel while at the same time inhabiting a futuristic mentality. And it is also a snorefest.

Rodney Copperbottom (voiced as adult by Ewan McGregor) is a young, self-proclaimed inventor, from a blue-collar family living in a world of robots. It is a land where the people, birds, dogs, and even a fire hydrant are mechanized creatures. Rodney has a good family but is inspired to leave and head to the metropolis of Robot City in hopes of working for his hero Big Weld (Mel Brooks) who is a true innovator in the field of robotics. He meets crazy old Fender (Robin Williams) and then is dismayed to learn that Big Weld is no longer in charge and an evil man named Ratchet (Greg Kinnear) has taken over. Ratchet has instituted a new policy that the company will no longer sell spare parts for robots, to concentrate solely on upgrades which are much more lucrative. The story here is a clear attempt to commentate on the neverending struggle of Big Business vs. the People, but mostly just tries to focus on having a fun time. So Rodney and Fender and friends must figure out what happened to Big Weld before all the poor robots end up as scrap metal.

Like Rodney, many of the visuals in Robots keep with the idea of invention, creativity and self-expression. For example, the Rodney and Fender's mouse trap ride. This and several other scenes seem to be well thought out and choreographed. There are several rather clever moments, such as the "labor" scene where Rodney's parents receive a delivery from the stork. It's a robot parts package to put him together. But... really, much of the movie is just a series of set pieces, one after the other. This worked for many old school Disney animated adventures (Alice in Wonderland, anyone?), but fails here because the filmmakers are unable to build any empathy or concern for the plight of Rodney and the gang. It's simply a series of short adventures, moving along at a frenetic pace and accompanied by a poorly imagined soundtrack, including ill-use of several totally out of place popular music tunes.

I wish the animation studios would finally learn that just because they hired a cast full of names (some of the voices in Robots include those of Halle Berry, Amanda Bynes, Paul Giamatti, and even James Earl Jones), it does not mean a thing without some guts and maybe even a little soul. Chris Wedge and his co-director Carlos Saldanha, who also teamed up on Fox's Ice Age, have made a glitzier, more eye-pleasing movie than that dud, but the end result is still the same: a bland, ho-hum waste of time. Pixar is so far ahead of the other studios in the CGI animation game, that it's almost not fair.

The Verdict: C-.


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