Biker Boyz (PG-13)
For a popcorn genre piece, Biker Boyz deserves credit for attempting to carve out a uniquely, ambitiously mixed niche: an urban motorcycle racing neo-western. But with each ingredient comes certain requirements and expectations, and only the "urban" angle is most fully realized, as director Reggie Rock Bythewood has assembled a multiethnic cast that includes a number of recognizable faces--in fact, so many that it becomes a distraction: Laurence Fishburne, Derek Luke, Orlando Jones, Larenz Tate, Meagan Good, Eriq LaSalle, Terrence Howard, Tyson Beckford, Kid Rock, Roswell's Brendan Fehr, former A Different World castmates Lisa Bonet and Kadeem Hardison, even that annoying head Lost Boy from Hook (since I never want to see this insufferable hack-tor appear on any screen ever again, I refuse to dignify his career and existence by naming him). The other two primary angles, "motorcycle racing" and "western," prove to be at odds, though, as Fast and the Furious-fueled audiences expect lots of racing action--and there really isn't, for the film is one long countdown to the big gunfight, er, race between the legendary veteran (Fishburne) and the young up-and-comer (Luke), both of whom go by oater-ready monikers: Smoke and Kid. So to fill in the time, Bythewood and co-writer Craig Fernandez throw in good ol' fashioned... soap opera, which is played far too earnestly for the film's own good. Even in such an overheated context, Fishburne exudes authority and Luke displays real movie star presence, but their efforts aren't enough to make the movie anything more than watchable cheese.
Final Destination 2 (R)
The Rube Goldberg-style, chain-reaction-gone-horribly-awry killings that distinguished Final Destination are back in this horror sequel, but that a number of said elaborate set-ups result in gruesome impalements pretty much sums up the film: the ingredients are here, but it's all been-there, done-that. A massive pileup on the highway is the fatal incident that a group of people narrowly escape this time, thanks to the psychic vision of a young woman (A.J. Cook). One by one these people get bumped off, one by one the people in the audience laugh their asses off--by the general campiness and the ludicrous, if trouper-like, effort of the filmmakers to conjure up some halfway-rational explanations for the preposterous events, not to mention invent strained connections to the original film. One principal from that first film, Ali Larter, does return, but more as a walking font of convoluted exposition than her former character--even her hair color is different this time--and Tony Todd reprises his cameo as a creepy mortician for no good reason. There's no good reason to watch Final Destination 2--that is, unless, you're strangely curious to find out whatever happened to Lois & Clark's mysteriously canned original Jimmy Olsen, Michael Landes, who has a lead role here as a cop.
The Guru (R)
As a fan of those over-the-top, Hindi-language musical fantasias being churned out with remarkable rapidity in India, Hollywood's current trend of Bollywood chic is a most welcome one in my eyes. While Moulin Rouge! was certainly made in the Bollywood spirit, The Guru is a far more direct homage to popular Indian cinema; unfortunately, it doesn't quite get it right. The premise certainly seems ripe for a Bollywood treatment: a dance teacher (Jimi Mistry) moves from Bombay to New York City in pursuit of film stardom only to achieve celebrity (through some fairly contrived plot developments) as "the Guru of Sex." What better way to evoke orgasmic pleasure than through the euphoric cinematic language of the Bollywood production number, no? Alas, director Daisy von Scherler Mayer and writer Tracey Jackson play it Westerner-safe and only throw in one such spontaneous scene of feverish choreography and lipsynching to the irresistible blend of sitar and tabla; not so surprisingly, it's the only moment where The Guru achieves any sort of pulse. Mistry, who first earned attention in the underseen British film East Is East, is likable as the reluctant guru; so is Heather Graham as the engaged porn star who unwittingly feeds the guru his words of wisdom. They make a charming pair, but under all the frank sex talk and cutesy Grease references, there's no fresh or funny angle to their clichéd, misunderstanding-plagued relationship, and the Bolly-inspired trimmings are too light to inspire much feeling--which not only makes The Guru a tepid Bollywood imitation, but a tepid film, period.
The Recruit (PG-13)
The title of The Recruit could just as easily apply to star Colin Farrell as it does his role; much like James Clayton, his bartender/computer expert character who's recruited into the CIA by a top spook (Al Pacino), Farrell has been pegged for Hollywood superstardom since his charismatic turn in Joel Schumacher's 2000 film Tigerland. And, just like James, Farrell delivers the goods as expected, holding his own against Pacino and effortlessly carrying Roger Donaldson's picture as it snakes through a convoluted maze of moles, double crosses, and assorted intrigue seen in many an espionage thriller before it. When a character in a film repeats ad nauseum that nothing is at it seems, more often than not it means that it is, and such is definitely the case here; the twists would not have been surprises even if Disney's marketing campaign didn't spoil them all. That the film still makes a diverting entertainment in spite of its obviousness is a testament to the gifts of primary players Farrell, Pacino and Bridget Moynahan (who would've thought she'd have the biggest career out of all the Coyote Ugly girls?) as another recruit; not to mention Donaldson, who lends the material a sense of urgency even when it--and Pacino's performance--completely succumb to cliché in the end.
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Dil Hai Tumhaara (My Heart Is Yours) Movie:
When I saw the trailer for Dil Hai Tumhaara in theatres back last July, it caught my attention for all the wrong reasons. The Hindi-language trailer played without subtitles, which made its scattered images of a young woman wearing a Supergirl T-shirt making bitchslapping gestures and the same woman later dancing along a riverbank in a gaudy, silver sequined dress all the more bewildering yet oddly fascinating. The first half of the film lived up to the promise of the trailer, as the spunky young woman, named Shalu (Preity Zinta), indulges in overly broad slapstick, even by Bollywood standards (she feeds some unwanted houseguests really hot chili peppers--which causes smoke to literally come out of their ears) and engages in a typical love-hate, musically-enhanced tango with rich guy Dev (Arjun Rampal), whom Shalu believes to be his lowly driver (don't ask). But by the film's intermission about 90 minutes in, the primary plot finally kicks in, and the film becomes not only entertaining but rather involving. When she discovers that Dev prefers Shalu over favored daughter Nimmi (Mahima Chaudhry), their mother (Rekha) is forced to confront the resentments caused by a dark family secret: Shalu is, in fact, not her natural daughter but her late husband's bastard child, whom she promised to raise after his and his mistress's deaths. The silliness of the first half makes way for a fun (if contrived) love triangle between Dev, Nimmi and Shalu, and Shalu's puppeteer admirer Sameer (Jimmy Shergill); and, above all else, some moving, emotionally authentic work from Zinta and Rekha. (Tips Films)
Raaz (Secret) Movie: Kehtaa Hai Dil Baar Baar (Says My Heart Over and Over Again) Movie:
While Hollywood plundering Bollywood, as it does in The Guru is, to put it lightly, a fairly uncommon practice, that ever-prolific film industry in India borrows from and/or rips off Tinseltown with regularity--for example, the Reservoir Dogs/Usual Suspects amalgam Kaante, which was released in cinemas in December; and a pair of other titles released last year (and currently available on DVD): Raaz (Secret) and Kehtaa Hai Dil Baar Baar (Says My Heart Over and Over Again).
Raaz is a redo of Robert Zemeckis's haunted house thriller What Lies Beneath, and to answer the inevitable next question, yes, director Vikram Bhatt gives the material the full Bollywood treatment; there's no shortage of the elaborate song and dance numbers that give B'wood its unique kick. Surprisingly, though, the production numbers never feel at odds with the supernatural story as they are used to flesh out the relationship of the two lead characters, who are, as in the Zemeckis film, a married couple. The plot/character specifics are not lifted wholesale, however, from the original film. The haunted house in question is a vacation residence, where Sanjana (Bipasha Basu) and Dhanraj (the bland Dino Morea) have come to rekindle their floundering marriage. But just like the original, the gorgeous and talented leading lady with striking eyes soon finds herself terrorized by an unseen force in the home.
The distinctly Indian touches are not limited to the musical sequences, however. Perhaps as a concession to the more family-oriented values of the culture, the final twist in What Lies Beneath is completely jettisoned. However, that hasn't stopped Bhatt from doing the ridiculous slasher finale that capped off the Zemeckis picture, which unfortunately made even more embarrassing by the cheap makeup and visual effects. The latter are especially shoddy and distracting in the film's counterpart to the famous "I think she suspects something--your wife!" scene. But Raaz certainly without its merits, chief among them being Basu, who has talent to back up her beauty. Most notable, however, is how Bhatt stays true to a more serious thriller tone, never once pandering to the audience by throwing in a needless broad comedy bit.
Broad comedy is, however, all there is to Kehtaa Hai Dil Baar Baar, and appropriately so, considering it's a reworking of the Robert DeNiro/Ben Stiller laugher Meet the Parents. Unfortunately, said broad comedy isn't all that funny here. Clocking in at a minute under two hours, Kehtaa Hai... is definitely much shorter than the Bollywood norm, but it progresses more slowly than usual. In fact, the movie only starts mirroring the Jay Roach film after the intermission, with the first hour being devoted to catering truck cook Sunder (Jimmy Shergill, more of a Matt LeBlanc clone than a Stiller one) wooing doctor Ritu (Kim Sharma). The chemistry never really comes to life, and neither does the comedy in either the first or second halves despite a spirited performance by Paresh Rawal as the disapproving, DeNiro-like father. His work and the nice photography of the New York/New Jersey locations (the film was the first Indian production to be shot on American soil) aren't enough, however, to compensate for the unmemorable, if pleasant, music and the general dearth of laughs. (Raaz: Tips Films; Kehtaa Hai...: Video Sound)
Saathiya (Companion) Movie:
Indian film superstardom isn't limited to just the on-camera talent; just as big of a celebrity as, say, a Shahrukh Khan is composer A.R. Rahman, who was responsible for the music for the Academy Award-nominated Lagaan and composed the Andrew Lloyd Webber-produced, Bollywood-themed stage musical Bombay Dreams, which is currently playing in London. Technically his most recent film score was for this December-released romance though (like a number of the songs in Bombay Dreams) it is an adaptation of some of Rahman's earlier work--specifically, the 2000 Tamil-language drama Alaipayuthey (Waves), of which this is a Hindi-language remake. While the songs--chiefly the lilting title number; the percussive wedding song "Chhalka Chhalka Re" ("It Spilled"); and the seductive ballads "Chupke Se" ("Quietly") and "Aye Udi Udi Udi" ("Flew Away")--are a highlight, what drives this love story are impressive performances by Rani Mukerji and Vivek Oberoi as Suhani and Aditya, a young married couple who come to realize that they may have rushed too quickly into matrimony. Director Shaad Ali and writer Mani Ratnam (who also directed Alaipayuthey) approach the issue seriously and intelligently (unlike, say, the improbably similar Just Married), but they too take their time to get to the real meat of the drama, as the somewhat tedious first half details their tortured, sometimes creepy (Aditya practically stalks Suhani before she finally falls for him) courtship in the face of (what else?) disapproving parents. After the intermission, Mukerji and Oberoi's believable for-better-and-worse rapport fuels the drama, and it speaks highly of their charisma and acting talent that a late-in-film cameo appearance by Shahrukh Khan can do nothing to steal their thunder; Oberoi is particularly impressive though he needs to work on making his dance moves look less forced. Yash Raj's nice DVD platter includes the film's theatrical trailer, all of its television spots and an understandably unused, overly Baywatch-ish alternate version of the dance ditty "Chori Pe Chori" ("Theft Upon Theft"). (Yash Raj Films Home Entertainment)
Darkness Falls (PG-13)
The makers of Darkness Falls have to be thanking their lucky stars that the similarly-themed They was released before their film, for it can only look that much better in comparison to that cheap, talky stinker. But that's not saying much, and neither is this would-be chiller about a murderous tooth fairy that in the dark preys upon the children of the all-too-aptly named town of (yes) Darkness Falls. The only trace of personality comes from Stan Winston's genuinely creepy design of the wraith-like Tooth Fairy (whose white porcelain mask hides a rotted face) for the film is devoid of character, let alone story. This is, quite simply, horror porn, with barely any connective tissue linking each set piece of the Fairy knocking off extras and chasing after cast members Emma Caulfield (sadly drained of her Buffy spunk), anonymous unknown Chaney Kley, and token creepy, creeped-out horror movie kid (thanks a lot, M. Night and Haley Joel) Lee Cormie, whose character profiles can be summed up with two words: running, screaming. Given the lack of any weight whatsoever, director Jonathan Liebesman keeps the film moving at a clip--so fast, in fact, that I'd say at least ten minutes of its scant 85-minute run time were devoted to end titles. That brevity, along with the interesting creature design, are just about the only things going for Darkness Falls.
Dil Ka Rishta (Relationships of the Heart)
This romantic drama marks reigning queen of Bollywood (and the one Indian film actor on the cusp of global mainstream stardom) Aishwarya Rai's debut as a producer, and accordingly she gave herself a juicy dramatic role spanning marriage, motherhood, tragedy, strength, fragility, romantic yearning and even amnesia--this on top of the usual dancing/lipsynching duties. If this sounds like a soap opera character arc, that wouldn't be entirely wrong. After a first half that plays like the Bollywood triangle norm--engaged teacher Tia (Rai) fends off the advances of rich guy Jai (George Clooney-resembling Arjun Rampal)--a tragic twist of fate sets the story and characters in a new direction, with Tia becoming romantic pursuer of a reluctant, guilt-ridden Jai. But unlike a soap, writer Vrinda Rai and director Naresh Malholtra don't have months worth of airtime to work out the mountain of melodrama they build up; even with a typically ample (150 minutes) Bollywood running time, the resolution feels remarkably rushed and overly tidy--though that problem could have been remedied had the filmmakers devoted more than only the last five minutes to tie everything up.
But even in a less than ideal context, Rai's considerable star qualities and talents shine through. Even with all the radical twists Tia endures, Rai makes each of those turns believable; in the dance sequences, she leaves no question as to who is leading the troupe; and she is simply just blessed with that intangible something known as screen presence. If her in-progress crossover to Western and Hollywood film doesn't work out, Rai should easily be able to hold onto her lofty perch in the Bollywood industry. (Special thanks to Naz 8 Cinemas)
A Guy Thing (PG-13)
Jason Lee, Selma Blair and especially Julia Stiles have healthy careers going, and certainly they wouldn't be at a loss for decent job options--making their involvement in this Thing all the more baffling. While the premise is formula but workable--groom (Lee) wakes up with the bride's (Blair) cousin (Stiles) mere days before the wedding--it's hard to imagine the film's stale gags reading any better on the page than they play onscreen. Lee has to give a board room presentation while suffering from crabs! Lee runs into his future mother-in-law while shopping for crotch medicine! Lee attempts to escape a sticky situation by climbing out of a second-story window and into a tree! But even less convincing than the labored slapstick situations is the romance that blossoms between Lee and Stiles, who display tepid acquaintance chemistry at best, let alone any trace of romantic chemistry. A Guy Thing? I can't imagine this painfully unfunny and often boring movie being a "thing" for guys or gals.
Just Married (PG-13)
January is notorious for being a dumping ground for crap, and 2003's first release, Just Married, does nothing to refute that reputation. Salt-of-the-earth Ashton Kutcher and poor little rich girl Brittany Murphy meet cute (or should I say "meet painful," since her nose accidentally ends up on the receiving end of his football pass--ha ha ha), fall in love and are soon hitched. But as wise men say, fools rush in, and during a disastrous European honeymoon the two discover how little they know one another--and perhaps how ill-matched they really are. Along the way, director Shawn Levy indulges in every obvious gag, from Kutcher bumping Murphy's head against the doorway when carrying her through the threshold or the pair booking a room in a run-down hotel. The outside seat-fillers at the screening happily ate up every unsurprising, unfunny second, but that doesn't mean that you have to.
Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark is one of those movies more easily admired than genuinely enjoyed, let alone loved. As an unseen narrator presumably from contemporary times and a French diplomat (Sergey Dreiden) from the 19th century inexplicably find themselves traveling through centuries of Russian history while wandering the halls of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, there is certainly much to be admired--namely, how the film smoothly plays out in one continuous, unbroken steadicam shot. It is from that technical choice that the most compelling drama emerges; wondering if Sokurov and cameraman Tilman Buttner will screw up or not is far more interesting than the fairly inert parade of historical figures such as Catherine the Great and recreations of historical events such as the Royal Ball of 1913. The opulent pageantry and the works of art on display make for undeniable eye candy, but what is shown is ultimately less captivating than the manner in which it is shown.
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (R)
It's all too fitting that the second Charlie Kaufman-scripted film of the season after the audacious Adaptation. would happen to be an adaptation. The screen version of Chuck Barris's "unauthorized autobiography" Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, however, shows no obvious signs of strain or writer's block--nor does it fit in the usual mold of debut directorial efforts by actors. George Clooney's first outing behind the camera is as visually stunning and cinematically alive as the work of an old pro, helped in no small part by the work of cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel. Some flashy camera moves and sequences can easily be dismissed as a first-timer's show-offy indulgence, but the flamboyance fits Barris's wild story of being a game show producer and a CIA assassin on the side like a glove. Clooney never loses sight of reality, however; talking head interviews with real-life associates of Barris are smartly woven throughout the film, and his incorporation of archival footage into the staged scenes is impressively seamless.
But Confessions is more than a technical triumph. Clooney also pays the usual actor-turned-director attention to his cast. Sam Rockwell is phenomenal as Barris; not only is his impression of him as host of The Gong Show is eerily dead-on, he helps make the stranger-than-fiction (or was it indeed fiction?) premise plausible, blending the goofy side and darker edges of Barris's personality into a convincing, conflicted whole. Matching him every step of the way (except, curiously, in the aging department; decades pass and her youthful appearance remains the same) is Drew Barrymore, who turns the potentially thankless role of Barris's free-spirited longtime love interest Penny into the film's warm emotional center; their unusual love story is just as intriguing as Barris's double life and perhaps even more involving than the rather rote thriller storyline that take over in the final stretch. But any shortcomings in the plotting are easily smoothed over when there's Julia Roberts, Rutger Hauer, and the director himself also giving memorable support as veteran spooks; and the film itself is such a dazzling and largely unpredictable ride. A terrific actor, a handsome movie star and now an accomplished director--damn you, Mr. Clooney, for making it that much more unfair for the average joe likes of myself.