Joe's Movie Reviews

Thursday, June 22, 2006

What To Do

First, let me say that the reason you ("you" being the mythical, probably non-existent person who's allegedly reading this) haven't seen reviews here as often, and when they have appeared, they haven't covered as many films as they used to, is financial... the only films I've seen in first-run theatres in a fair while are either the two I've seen at Block E courtesy of the 2 free passes from Management (Thanks, Bob Strong) and the six I've seen at AMC theatres courtesy of the 6 AMC passes from my sister (thanks, sis). And then there was the ten-film pass to the Mpls./St. Paul International Film Festival courtesy of still another "sponsor" (thanks, Bonnie). I've seen a bunch at second-run discount houses, but to my mind, by the time a movie gets to one of those places, it's almost time for it to come out on video, and what's the point of writing a review then?

As a result of this, there are a number of films I'd like to see but haven't yet been able to. And for lack of a personal review by me of the Al Gore documentary "An Inconvenient Truth", let me point you towards a web site previously mentioned here... There you can find not only a very insightful review of "An Inconvenient Truth", but some suggestions about actions you can take if the film makes you really want to do something about the situation (as it probably will). I would never actually review a film I haven't seen, but in this case recommending one... this particular one, anyhow... well, I have no problem with that.

By the way, if any of you Spam comment masters are reading this, do not interpret any of my comments about finances to mean that I'm interested in any of your fabulous money-making plans. Thanks, anyhow.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Message From George W. Bush IV

"I think that if you know what you believe, that makes it easier to answer questions. I can't answer your question."

Friday, June 09, 2006

Over The Hedge

Disney and Pixar have both had a considerably higher average of quality work than the live-action stuff Disney grinds out, and on the whole, Dreamworks has done better with their animated films as well (though their live action track record is better than Disney). I wonder what this tells us about the adults who are in charge of so-called grownup film making in Hollywood? Whatever it tells us, it's happened again: Dreamworks' latest bit of feature-length CGI animation is more clever, inventive and just plain fun than the majority of what passes for "serious" movie making... and it even has a little bit of a serious point to it, as well!

The star of our story is R.J. (voice by Bruce Willis), a racoon who's angered a very nasty bear (voiced by Nick Nolte) by stealing his storehouse of food, and has been given just one week to make up for what he took. Impossible on his own, but not with the help of the group of forest creatures he runs into. Of course, he has to tell a tiny little lie about why he wants them to help and how he considers them his "family"... but hey, a racoon's gotta do what a racoon's gotta do, right?

The cast is perfect: Gary Shandling as the turtle who ran the group until R.J. came along, Wandy Sykes as the proud skunk, Levy and Catherine O'hara as a pair of hedge hogs, William Shatner as an over-the-top, over-acting (quite a stretch, eh?) possum & Avril Lavigne as his daughter, and perhaps the real star of the show, Steve Carrell as a squirrel who's hyper enough that if he actually added any caffeine to his system, he could probably fly (or at the very least win a cross country foot race in just a few hours). Lavigne is a little bland in her first acting role, but everyone else is positively a hoot. Not only are there plenty of laugh-getting lines, but lines that probably weren't especially hysterical on paper come across as funny they way this crew does them... particularly Carrell.
The man (or the squirrell) is genuinely insane... and I mean that in the best possible way.

But what about that serious stuff, you might wonder? Well, the forest animals have just run into a strange new obstacle in their quest to forage for their usual woodland goodies... suburbia. Urban sprawl is quickly destroying any trace of the natural environment where they have made their home, and nobody knows how to deal with an enemy... good old human greed... that's even more powerful than any grizzly bear. This doesn't by any means turn this lighthearted comedy into a somber message movie, but it does add an interesting layer of seriousness into the humor that makes the film something more than JUST a comic romp.

And on top of all that, the film features five terrific new soundtrack recordings by one of the most creative singer/songwriters in pop music today, Ben Folds, that actually don't bring the movie to a screeching halt every time one of them begins (now there really IS a switch!). The film is supposed to be based on a comic strip of the same name. Since I had never even heard of it before reading about the film on Yahoo Movies and IMDB, much less read it, I have no idea how well it translates the source material to film. But as a film, it's nearly non-stop fun that genuinely will appeal to adults and children alike (though mostly for different reasons... though Carrell's squirrel should amuse everyone). And if the comic strip is actually as funny as the movie, the folks who get it in their paper are lucky. Hmm... I wonder what it would take to persuade the Star & Tribune to carry it?

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

At Last, Another Sequel!

1. "X-Men: The Last Stand." In this alleged conclusion to the mutant "trilogy", a cure for the mutant gene has been found, and controversy has sprung up among the mutant community about whether to become "normal". Naturally, Magneto and company is by no means in favor of this, and mounts an all-out war to obtain the "cure" and destroy it.

I haven't read an X-man comic in over a decade, but I used to be a fan, and my impression of the first film was that it was a pretty decent attempt at translating the source material to the screen. The second film, not so much. Now those films' director, Bryan Singer, has left the series to revive Superman, and legendary Hollywood hack Brett "Rush Hour" Ratner has taken the reigns. The result: a film that's way too short for the huge cast of characters it contains, that has too much in the way of fights & explosions and not enough in the way of character... but that still manages to be a step up from the second film. I wouldn't give Ratner the credit for that, though.

There's a second major storyline, as well: Jean Gray (Famke Jansen), apparently killed at the end of the second film, is back as "Dark Phoenix", with a distinctly sinister side to her personality now... and a homicidal one, even. This, combined with the whole "cure" plot and its definite parallels to efforts to "cure" gay people add a certain element of gravity that hadn't been present before and overcome some of the film's other difficulties. Many of the characters become a bit more fully-rounded and easier to sympathize and/or identify with. And as always, a film featuring both Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen is going to contain some great acting.

Then again, there's Kelsey Grammar provoking unintended laughs as The Beast, who is kind of like what a Smurf might be like if it was born and raised next to Chernobyl. There are also what appear to be significant subplots that wind up not going anywhere, and characters from previous films who appear to be in this one only because people will expect them to be, even though they have virtually nothing to do. And some of the dialogue is quite lame... I wish I could forget the "I hear you're quite an animal" bit, but it continues to haunt me. Ratner does have some powerful material to work with, but it succeeds in spite of his failings... I still have to wonder what Singer could have done with this story.

Still, overall, though this is definitely not a movie that I would recommend to those who have never been "X-Men" fans before, for followers of the team it's a fairly exciting adventure with a little more depth than we've sometimes gotten in superhero films (granted, it's no "Batman Begins"). One strong suggestion: if you do go to see it, do NOT get up to leave when the end credits begin. The film's ACTUAL last scene doesn't happen until after the very last of the end credits roll, and it's a very significant one. Of the 120 or so people in the audience when I saw the film, only five (including me) were still around for that scene... don't be one of the "left too early" crowd. And if this truly IS the last X-men group effort (there's talk of solo spin-off movies), it really wouldn't be all that bad a way for the series to say goodbye.

2. "The Break-Up". After first meeting at a Chicago Cubs game at the very beginning of the film, the couple played by Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston go through their entire courtship and relationship with no dialogue underneath the opening credits, and we pick up again after the credits as the relationship is beginning to crumble and showing us why the movie has this particular title. Most romantic comedies never show us the "happily ever after". "The Break-Up" not only shows it, but suggests that whoever came up with that name for it was out of their tiny little mind.

I'm not really qualified to make any definitive judgments on this, but it at least seems to me that this movie feels more realistic and true-to-life than most others of its type, given of course the usual exaggerations that all movies, especially comedies, always have. However, that's not necessarily enough when the film doesn't have enough funny lines or situations (this IS a comedy, folks!), and when the leading lady seems content most of the time to continue playing a variation on the same character she played on TV for a decade. And oh, yeah... there's the terrific supporting cast (Ann-Margret, Jon Favreau, and a bunch of others) who, other than the memorable John Michael Higgins as Aniston's brother, are totally wasted.

Then again, Vaughn continues to show why he has become one of the biggest names in contemporary movie comedy. The guy can take the most tedious line (and he's given his share of them here) and still manage to wring laughs out of it, and also manages to make you not hate him even while exhibiting the behavior of the ultimate male chauvanist pig. And much of the movie is essentially a love letter to the city of Chicago, a place I wouldn't mind living some day... so a lot of it looks terriffic simply because Chicago does too. The endless, tedious arguments do manage to slip in a few isolated funny lines from time to time as well. Of course, it's nearly always Vaughn who says them.

On "Rotten" (a site which compiles critics' reviews from around the country for a national average) this film is currently rated "rotten" at 32% (meaning 32% of the reviews are positive). That seems about right. I've seen much worse, and I do appreciate that the film's ending isn't the usual hollywood romantic comedy cop-out. And maybe if you've been through an experience like this recently you'd be more interested (though why would you want to re-live it?). But ultimately, if you pass over "The Break-Up", you probably won't be regretting it for the rest of your life. You won't have missed all that much.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Message From george W. Bush III

"If this were a dictatorship, things would be a lot easier... just as long as I was the dictator."

A Tale Of Two Toms

1. "The Da Vinci Code". Here's the pointless part (assuming that ALL the parts of these reviews aren't pointless): the part where I explain the premise of a movie that is known even to the dozen or so people who haven't read the book (I was one of those people until about two days before I saw the film). It seems that there is a secret about the origins of Christianity that could cause disaster to the Church if revealed, and certain parties... including those with close ties to the Catholic Church... will do anything, including kill, to prevent that from happening. Meanwhile, a "symbologist" and an officer of the French police are racing to both uncover that secret and avoid the pursuit of French officials after them for a murder they didn't commit.

Okay, so much for the TV Guide summary. Now, for the controversy. For the record, I am on the one hand not a member of any organized religion (so I do not have any great emotional investment in whether the traditional doctrines are or are not true) and on the other I do not for one second believe that a single aspect of Dan Brown's novel is anything other than complete, 100 percent fiction. It's not true, folks: he made it all up. ALL of it. So I'm approaching this story not as a Dan Brown disciple praising him for uncovering the truth, or attacking him as a heretic. I'm just interested in this film as a movie like any other.

So, I guess that's all. Oh, what did you say? You want to know if the movie was any good? Oh, yeah, I guess I did forget to mention that, didn't I? Well, actually, in spite of what more than 3/4 of the nation's professional critics have said... yeah, I do think it was a decent movie. Not a great cinematic achievement, mind you... no Oscar-winner, no classic for the ages. But in a time when Hollywood often seems incapable of producing quality movies even in the commercial summer action blockbuster mode that is supposed to be their strength, "The Da Vinci Code" provides 2 1/2 hours of entertaining fun (I was going to say "uncomplicated" fun but that's not exactly accurate) at the movies, and manages the difficult task of turning a 489 page book into a 149 minute movie with most of its significant points intact. There's nothing to be ashamed of about a well-made "popcorn movie", and that's what we have here.

Tom Hanks strikes me as a quite believable as an unconventional action hero who instead of running for an arsenal to grab a bunch of guns, exclaims "We've got to get to a library... fast!" (a great line). Paul Bettany, who has rarely been sinister in his previous roles (other than "Firewall") is marvelously creepy as the albino monk assassin Silas. And of course Ian McKellen is as wonderful as always in the role of Sir Leigh Teabing (a Grail scholar who aids Hanks in his quest). Audrey Tatou is perhaps a little weak as the French officer along for the quest, but at least the role is well-written and not just your typical female who's only there for some vague romantic interest. The movie manages to make a series of tricky puzzles in several languages (numeric codes, too) the center of an action movie and succeeds quite well.

Not that everything about the film is perfect, understand. Certainly veteran film composer Hans Zimmer could easily have toned down his musical score by a factor of ten and it still might have been too melodramatic. And yes, sometimes the dialogue does get a little hard to swallow. But approached fromas objective a standpoint as there can be, going into the movie with no "agenda" of any kind, it seems to me that "The Da Vinci Code" is something that, Spider Man and Jason Bourne aside, is becoming increasingly difficult to find: a summer Hollywood movie that provides a few hours of effective escapism and is actually worth coming in out of the nice warm weather for. Of course, this puts me in an extremely small minority position. But as someone who voted for George McGovern in his first election, I'm used to that. Ron Howard doesn't have a perfect track record ("The Grinch", anyone?) but even though this film is no "Apollo 13" (to my mind, his best) it's still one he should be pleased to be able to put on his resume.

2. "Mission: Impossible III". From the not quite sublime to the genuinely ridiculous. I'm pleased to say that I'm not part of the recent Tom Cruise backlash: with an occasional exception ("Born On The 4th Of July", "Magnolia", "Collateral") I've never found him to be much more than a typically shallow and self-involved pretty-boy type. The man can act, but rarely bothers to. So my expectations for "Mission: Impossible III" weren't tremendously high, especially since the first two films in the series were directed by genuine talents (Brian DePalman and John Woo) while this third film is the directorial debut of TV director J.J. Abrams. Even with diminished expectations, however, it still managed to disappoint.

The story? Well, i suppose there was one, kind of. Cruise's Ethan Hunt is now semi-retired and only TRAINS agents for the IMF. But a mission he can't refuse involving the disappearance of one of those trainees brings him back into the field, and up against a sinister villain out to obtain a potentially world-destroying device called "The Rabbit's Foot". Simple, basic stuff compared to the labarynthine twists and turns of the first two movies, which is a point in its favor. That's pretty much the only aspect of the movie that is, however.

Cruise, as usual, sleepwalks through every scene, including the big action and stunt sequences. Abrams tends to cast the supporting roles with non-movie caliber tv performers he's worked with in the past, such as Keri Russell and Michelle Monaghan. And when he does use a genuine actor, such as Oscar winner Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the principal villain, he winds up appearing to have "Tom Cruise Sleepwalking Disease" and gives a performance that you would never connect with the guy who's starred in films like "Capote". The one
bright exception to this is Laurence Fishburne, who gives his role as the current head of the IMF a surprising degree of complexity and believability. However, the role is so small that he doesn't really have a chance to offset the effect of all the rest of the sub-par cast.

The film can't even get us worked up or excited about the explosions and stunts. Each time some chase or action sequence starts you only wind up remembering another scene in one of the first two movies that was just like it. The one time in the film I saw something different... a genuinely exciting scene in which Cruise slides down the outside of a very steep glass tower... I very briefly got my hopes up, until it occurred to me how much more I had enjoyed the very same stunt when I first saw Jackie Chan do it about six years ago in his movie "Who Am I?". The comparison does not do Cruise any favors.

In spite of all the news reports about the supposed box office disappointment of this film, the fact remains that it made almost $50 million on its opening weekend and there will most likely be a fourth title in the franchise. But after seeing the downturns the series has taken in this installment, the mind boggles as to how it could go further down next time out. Perhaps it could be written and directed by a first-time feature director who had only made COMMERCIALS before, and star Rob Schneider as the villain with Jenny McCarthy as the love interest? You know, there are times I'm glad that nobody is actually reading this stuff... I wouldn't want to give them any ideas...