The Movie Report
July 2003

#382 - 385
July 4, 2003 - July 25, 2003

all movies are graded out of four stars (****)

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#385 July 25, 2003 by Michael Dequina


Spy Kids 3-D poster Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over (PG) ***
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With Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, Robert Rodriguez reaffirms his status as the movies' resident renaissance man. To say that he does practically everything on the film except appear on-camera would be both accurate and, in a sense, an understatement, for every last frame of his latest family action-adventure spills over with the auteur's genius vision--quite literally this time around, given the added visual gimmick.

As far as shameless gimmicks go, though, the 3-D in Game Over is not only well-executed but organically integrated into the story. The setting for most of the film is the virtual reality world of a deadly video game, where young OSS operative Carmen Cortez (Alexa Vega) is trapped; it's up to her brother and now-"retired" spy Juni (Daryl Sabara) to find and free Carmen as well as defeat the game's evil creator, The Toymaker (Sylvester Stallone). The 3-D process allows Rodriguez to let his fervid imagination run even more wild. While he does throw in the a number of shameless, effect-exploiting moments of literally throwing things into the audience's face, the 3-D is more effective and memorable for how it immerses the viewer into the game world along with the characters. Of course, helping things immeasurably are the imaginative digital effects and Rodriguez's natural gift for staging and shooting spectacular action sequences. Even without the 3-D, set pieces such as a high-octane race and a faceoff between two giant robots would be surefire adrenaline rushes.

Juni doesn't embark on his mission without help, and this is where Spy Kids 3-D disappoints the most. The entire Cortez clan plays even less of a role here than in the last film, the Carmen-Juni buddy adventure that was Island of Lost Dreams. Game Over feels as if it were written around the limited availability of most of the returning cast, for it is essentially a Juni solo adventure, with Grandpa (Ricardo Montalban), whom Juni pulls into the game, being the only other member of the family with any sort of substantial role. With the other family members appearing in greatly diminished capacities (including Carmen, which is all the more disappointing considering how Vega proved her immense star quality and promise by the end of the last picture), a gaggle of nondescript pre-adolescent video game beta testers more or less take their place as Juni's backup, and they aren't nearly as colorful or captivating as the Cortez clan. When Carmen and Juni's parents (Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino) and uncles (Danny Trejo and Cheech Marin) finally do turn up for the final showdown, it's a mixed blessing; we're glad to see them, but then we're reminded of just how much we missed them for most of the running time.

While Stallone's hammy and embarrassing turn as The Toymaker is a strong reason for anyone to wish "game over" for the Spy Kids franchise, I'm hoping that there will be at least one more film, for the franchise has yet to deliver the true family team adventure so tantalizingly promised at the end of the first film. The entertaining Game Over may be a disappointment compared to its better-rounded predecessors, but it shows that Rodriguez has more than enough imagination and pure talent to fuel further installments of the series.

In Brief

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider--The Cradle of Life poster Lara Croft: Tomb Raider--The Cradle of Life (PG-13) **
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The Cradle of Life is better than its predecessor, 2001's remarkably stillborn Lara Croft: Tomb Raider--and, yes, that's every bit the backhanded compliment it sounds like. To the credit of director Jan DeBont and screenwriter Dean Georgaris, unlike the makers of the first film they seem to have thought outside the box, approaching this latest screen adventure for fearless archaeologist Lara (Angelina Jolie) as an actual film and not a video game. Instead of feeling like a randomly strewn-together series of sequences ready-made for digital PC/game console adaptation, there is a bit more of an overarching story supporting the distinctly movie-type action; Lara never even wears her famous short shorts once in the film. That said, the plot is in simplistic line with undemanding popcorn Hollywood actioners: Lara, with the help of a bad boy ex-partner (Gerard Butler), must keep the mythical Pandora's Box and all its deadly power from falling into the wrong hands. But even such fundamental improvements (which also include a mercifully reduced role for Lara's grating help, butler Hillary and techie Bryce, respectively played by Christopher Barrie and Noah Taylor) only raise this film to the level of mediocrity; while there is far more action this time out, the sequences are more workman-like than truly imaginative or exciting, and the climax is one big fizzle. As in Simon West's original film, Jolie remains a good sport throughout, and while the crew supporting her this time seem to be making strides toward molding the Lara Croft concept into a viable screen franchise, I'm not so sure I want to sit through another two hours of them trying to work out the kinks.

Seabiscuit poster Seabiscuit (PG-13) ***
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A partially-blind jockey. An undersized racehorse. A Great Depression-era setting. Such is the foolproof recipe for an old-fashioned, crowd-pleasing slice of summer counterprogramming, and screenwriter-director Gary Ross hasn't botched the ready-made job. The film looks great (John Schwartzman's cinematography is a safe bet for an Oscar nod); toplining stars Tobey Maguire (as jockey Red Pollard), Jeff Bridges (as Seabiscuit's owner) and Chris Cooper (as the horse's trainer) all give impassioned performances; and the fact-based story definitely hits the feel-good spot. That said, it's hard to work up effusive enthusiasm over the film, however well-made it is, for it feels overly programmatic, down to the Olympic-style "overcoming adversity" final act and its strange way of glossing over what seem to be serious issues for its protagonists (Red's drinking; the Bridges character's gambling). Nonetheless, as mainstream, serious-minded, inspirational cinema goes, Seabiscuit reaches its intended goal with skill and style, and its gentleness stands out amid all the crass summer blockbusters.

#384 July 18, 2003 by Michael Dequina


Bad Boys II poster Bad Boys II (R) ***
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Just about any concrete cinematic complaint can be levelled against Bad Boys II. The script is a mess; the movie is horribly long and atrociously over-directed--and that's just for a start. But damn it if the film doesn't work as what it's supposed to be: a big, brainless blast o' boom at the box office.

Eight long years have passed since the first Bad Boys film, and there's a certain meta-viewing appeal to the sequel in how it reflects the changes that have taken place in the near-decade. While both bad boys of the title, Martin Lawrence and Will Smith, have successfully made the transition from TV sitcom stardom to big screen box office glory, second-billed Smith has leap-frogged over Lawrence to become one of the most popular stars in the world as an action hero. Accordingly, while still top-billed (no doubt a stipulation built into his contract), Lawrence and the broad comic schtick that dominated the first film takes a back seat to Smith's both-barrels-blazing badassitude. But that switch is completely in line with director Michael Bay's now-familiar style; since his feature debut with Bad Boys, his name has become synonymous with loud, hyper-edited, flamboyantly bombastic screen mayhem.

Bay's acute awareness of that shallow reputation can be felt all over Bad Boys II. After the (deserved) beating he took for his last film, the would-be Oscar bait epic Pearl Harbor, BBII plays like one huge "fuck you" to his critics by giving them all that they expect from him to the nth degree. Flashy visuals? From the first frames, set in a drug lab, Bay doesn't skimp on the quick cuts, ridiculously overwrought camera moves or slow motion--all bathed, of course, in the glow of blue light, as in all of producer Jerry Bruckheimer's films. Loud, over-the-top action? Barely a ten-minute stretch goes by without either something exploding or someone getting shot--in the most overblown (and, in the latter respect, bloodiest and most sadistic) fashion possible. The jokes? Silly and, wherever possible, raunchy. The story? Barely enough to qualify as even a "plot." "Importance" and or cinematic nutritional value? Are you kidding?

But when one buys a ticket for Bad Boys II, that's what one pays to see. Even with Ron Shelton's name appearing in the writing credits this time, there's even less of a narrative than the formulaic identity-switch scenario of the first film: basically, Miami cops Mike Lowrey (Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) are out to nab a Cuban drug smuggler (Jordi Molla). Somehow a Russian club owner (Peter Stormare) ties in, as well as Marcus's DEA agent sister/Mike's secret love interest (Gabrielle Union)--but how exactly they all fit in isn't worth trying to figure out, for Bay and company haven't bothered to. It's all only one big excuse to string together over two hours' worth of preposterous but undeniably exciting action sequences, including an explosive gunfight that evolves into a massive highway chase/smash-up; another car chase that somehow involves a truckload of cadavers (!); and one maximum-firepower assault on and in a mansion. Some set pieces don't work as well as others, namely a close-quarters shootout during which Bay annoyingly refuses to keep the camera still; and a destructive chase through a hillside shanty town that too closely compares (and very unfavorably at that) to the opening sequence of Jackie Chan's Police Story.

Whenever the action lets up, however, Bay takes a breather and just lets Smith and Lawrence play off of each other, and the eight years and varying career and life tracks hasn't diminished their chemistry in the slightest. The comedy scenarios are obvious and often strained--a big Marcus-on-Ecstasy bit seems to be there only to give Lawrence a moment to call his own; a Mr. Furley-ish bit with Marcus and Mike giving double-entendre-heavy confessionals in an electronic store that stops the story dead--but the two stars' magnetism and comic chops earn the laughs that may not have otherwise been elicited in lesser hands. The ever-reliable Joe Pantoliano is also good for some choice comic moments as the boys' ever-frazzled captain, but his return appearance mostly amounts to an extended cameo--another reflection of the time between movies, as the now-ubiquitous Pantoliano's availability was more than likely limited. Also limited in her screen time is another returnee, Theresa Randle, who has nothing to do this time around as Marcus's wife. (Seeing her alongside Union also brings to mind the passage of time, for the now-little-seen Randle was, like Union is now, the omnipresent up-and-comer in the mid-'90s period during which Bad Boys was released.)

All of these elements may sound very loosely thrown together, and it wouldn't be off-base at all to say that they are. But such is par for the Bruckheimer course (hello, welding/stripping/ballet in Flashdance; deep core oil drillers, asteroids and outer space in Armageddon?); the question is not if the pieces come together in a coherent fashion, but an entertaining one. Bad Boys II is indeed one bloated, loud, frenetic slice of all-around excess, but it's all in good summertime fun.

#383 July 11, 2003 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

Northfork poster Northfork (R) ***
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The third film from the maverick twin brother filmmaking team of writer-director Michael Polish and writer-producer Mark Polish, is a difficult film to immediately wrap one's head around. With its blend of magical realism, period detail, absurdist whimsy, solemn sincerity, and an altogether skewed overlying sensibility, it takes more than one viewing for all of its pieces to assemble into a cohesive, coherent whole. The film, set in 1955, gets its title from a Montana town about to be flooded over in the name of progress--namely, a recently erected dam. In this desolate, all-but-abandoned space roam a number of characters: a team of eviction agents (among them, a father and son played by James Woods and Mark Polish) trying to clear out the remaining residents in exchange for some prime future lakefront property; a preacher (Nick Nolte) tending to a terminally ill boy (Duel Farnes); and a group of celestial beings (including a handless Anthony Edwards, an androgynous Daryl Hannah, and a silent, cowboy-hat-wearing God played by Ben Foster) searching for an angel, who may or may not be the dying boy. The last point definitely feels a little bewildering at first, particularly on an initial viewing, but it soon becomes clear that this is not a film to be taken too concretely; rather, Northfork is to be taken as a surreal tone poem, a moody and layered meditation on and evocation of literal and figurative states of purgatory. This feeling of limbo is reflected in the monochromatic shadings of M. David Mullen's gorgeous cinematography and the dreamy textures of Stuart Matthewman's score; the Polish Brothers even evoke the polar extremes through the alternately broad and subdued performances and the contrast created by the dry, oddball flourishes of humor that emerge within a largely elegiac atmosphere. Yes, it's all undeniably pretentious, but just as hard to discount is the unique and lingering spell the film casts, and the film just grows even stronger upon reflection.

Pirates of the Caribbean poster Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas poster Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (PG-13) ***
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Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (PG) **
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When the project was announced, it was all too easy to snicker at the idea of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. After all, it was the latest example of Disney's newly discovered way of milking existing cash cows--converting theme park attractions into feature films, and the first product spawned from the new formula, last summer's thoroughly bizarro The Country Bears, didn't exactly make one eager to see another Magic Kingdom-to-movie translation. To simply say that the low initial expectations worked to Pirates's benefit is to not give due credit to its cast and crew, who have made a questionable idea into a viable film and rousing thrill ride in its own right. Not that director Gore Verbinski completely turned his nose away from the popular Disneyland source material; in fact, part of the fun of the film is seeing how closely Verbinski duplicates the aesthetic of the ride: nighttime scenes on the mysterious pirate ship known as The Black Pearl look like they were shot on the actual ride sets; a cannon-firing sequence closely mirrors a familar stretch of the ride; and, in a particularly crowd-pleasing move, one of the attraction's most memorable visuals is lifted verbatim. Just about the only thing missing is a shot of boats full of tourists passing a restaurant in the background.

But obviously this ship can't sail on theme park connections alone, but it very well keeps afloat due to the strength of one person's efforts: those of Johnny Depp. Going into the film, one would think Pirates would be a Nick of Time-ish instance of gimme-a-paycheck slumming, but Depp's highly strange (indeed, even more thoroughly bizarro than anything in The Country Bears), oddly magnetic, and irresistibly entertaining performance energizes the overextended, two-hour-plus proceedings. There is a story here--involving nasty, gold-coveting pirates (led by an appropriately scenery-chewing Geoffrey Rush, also clearly enjoying himself) and dashing hero (Orlando Bloom, not quite at Legolas-level badassitude here) with a secret known only to a plucky damsel (stunning ex-Amidala decoy Keira Knightley)--and it is engrossing enough to come off as more than a mere clothesline for slick swordfights, booming cannon fire and nifty special effects work. That said, it is Depp's Keith Richards/Pepe LePew-inspired (!) rogue pirate Capt. Jack Sparrow that makes the film more than a serviceable swashbuckler; in a season of programmatic formula entertainers, the ever-eccentric Depp lifts Pirates with a strong dose of lively personality.

...which is something that DreamWorks' own seafaring yarn, the animated feature Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, could have used plenty of. As far as family targeted fluff goes, the film is harmless enough; to save his best friend Proteus (voiced by Joseph Fiennes), infamous rogue Sinbad (Brad Pitt) must find and return the all-powerful Book of Peace, which has been stolen by sultry goddess of chaos Eris (Michelle Pfeiffer). Along for the journey is Proteus's feisty fiancée Marina (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who finds Sinbad's charms too much to resist. Pfeiffer and Zeta-Jones give spirited voice turns, particularly the former, who really needs to do more vixen roles; but they are the only things remotely noteworthy about this completely average time-killer, which is as routine as many live-action adventure films, right down to the competent but fairly undistinguished art and animation.

#382 July 4, 2003 by Michael Dequina


Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon poster Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon (I Will Love Him till the End of Time) *
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I was beginning to think that my interest in Bollywood film was unusual for someone in the West--particularly in the notoriously B'wood-ignorant U.S.--until last month, when Time's Richard Corliss wrote a huge valentine to his own obsession with commercial Indian cinema. Now far be it for me to be a slave to the Time Warner conglomerate's supposed trendsetting, but that did give me a little nudge of encouragement that maybe this particular column feature had a purpose and general appeal beyond my own self-indulgence. Further encouragement came in the form of recent Bollywood film festivals on the mainstream premium cable networks Turner Classic Movies and the Sundance Channel.

But the real clincher came, as it always does in this industry, with hard box office figures: namely the #16 North American box office finish of Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon (I Will Love Him till the End of Time) on its opening the weekend of June 27-29, earning over $670,000 on only 60 screens. But like its Hollywood blockbuster counterparts, business more than tumbled by half in its second weekend--not terribly surprising, in light of the mixed reaction of the capacity opening night crowd at my trusty local "Bollyplex," as I call it (the wonderful Naz 8 Cinemas in Lakewood, California). Even at 201 minutes long (since cut down to 177 minutes, but more on that later), this romance--hyped before its release as B'wood's big summer blockbuster--isn't exactly too much longer than the famously lengthy Bollywood norm, but the palpable restlessness of the audience by the film's final stretch was merited, as the film failed to generate much of interest to sustain such a running time.

Not that MPKDH (as it is popularly abbreviated) boasts a plot any less thin as or more familiar than many other Bollywood films. Sanjana (Kareena Kapoor) is a free-spirited type who, fresh out of college, wants to live her life by her own terms; her parents, of course, have more traditional plans in mind--namely, marrying her off to the most appropriate suitor. Appearing to fit the bill to Sanjana's family is a friend of her sister's by the name of Prem (Hrithik Roshan), whose outgoing, thrill-seeking belies his status as a big-time businessman--and for a very good reason: it turns out that this Prem, Prem Kishen, is actually an underling of the proper Prem, Prem Kumar (Abhishek Bachchan, refreshingly understated in overblown surroundings), who couldn't arrive on time due to business commitments. But, of course, by the time Prem Kumar does arrive, Sanjana has already been won over by Prem Kishen.

Sounds like a typical romantic triangle out of B'wood, and it follows the flamboyant masala formula to the letter. The more lighthearted first half of the film focuses on Prem Kishen's efforts to win over Sanjana while things turn more serious post-intermission with the arrival of Prem Kumar and the formation of the key triangle; dollops of broad humor are spread throughout the film; and there are many buoyant song and dance numbers sprinkled along the way. But director Sooraj Barjatya and his two main stars, Kapoor and Roshan, don't quite grasp that a certain moderation is called for even in a genre characterized by excess; there's a fine line between excess and simply too much. Bollywood humor is generally silly, but Barjatya really tests audiences' patience and suspension of disbelief with his two big "enhancements"--a dog whose head suddenly morphs from live action to animation (!) when angry; and, even worse, an annoying CGI talking parrot (!!) with a penchant for quoting movie titles (!!!). Kapoor's ongoing high-profile career continues to be confounding with her thoroughly unimpressive performance. She still confuses overwrought mugging with acting, whether comic or dramatic (that her most convincing scene is when she cries on her bed--while face down--says it all); and she continues to prove to be one of the most rhythm-challenged dancers in Bollywood. That last statement cannot, of course, be applied to Roshan, who is a terrific dancer--and, when he wants to be, can be an effective actor. Alas, MPKDH is one project where he chooses to overact (perhaps to keep up with his leading lady?), and Barjatya makes the curious decision to not give him one big number where he can really cut loose and show what he can do.

And, in a rather strange move, the one musical number in which Roshan is given the most to do has since been cut from the film. After complaints about the film's length during the opening week, the producers made the curious move to order exhibitors to remove an entire reel from the film. While the sequence in question, taking place during a Valentine's Day party, did drag on and can theoretically be removed fairly cleanly, the film makes very little narrative sense without it. Not only does it mark the crucial turning point where Prem Kishen finally wins over Sanjana and introduces an element that pays off at the climax, the now-excised sequence features the centerpiece musical number that introduces the song--the annoying yet impossibly catchy "Sanjana I Love You"--that becomes the film's central musical theme for the rest of the film. But I guess such a hasty and sloppy decision is reflective of the overall haphazard line of creative thinking that went into Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon. (DVD available from Rajshri Films)


Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam poster Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (Straight from the Heart)
Movie: ***
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Three years prior to Devdas, director Sanjay Leela Bhansali and leading lady Aishwarya Rai first teamed up for another lavishly mounted epic love story, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (literally Darling, I Gave My Heart Away, but the official English title is Straight from the Heart). The supremely polished Devdas can be seen as Bhansali honing and refining his own cinematic identity the established with HDDCS (as it is commonly abbreviated), as this earlier film, while effective, still shows the director working out the kinks of his opulent approach to romantic drama.

Unlike Devdas, HDDCS suffers from a common problem with Bollywood films: a rather glaring disconnect between its two halves. In the first half, sheltered rich girl Nandini (Rai) falls for the brash, half-Italian, half-Indian Sameer (a terrible Salman Khan), who moves in to study music under her stern father, and these proceedings are predictable and often silly, replete with groan- and cringe-inducing flatulence jokes. The sober seriousness of the second half, in which Nandini's new husband Vanraj (Ajay Devgan) selflessly helps her track down her lost love in Italy (the locations at which were obviously--and rather comically--actually shot in Hungary), is a stark contrast--but here the dramatic turn justifies the lighter first half, for the contrast poignantly drives home Bhansali's themes about the nature of mature love versus impetuous, youthful passion. Even Khan's rather laughable performance works in favor of Bhansali's message, as Nandini's feelings for Sameer can be read less as real love than an act of rebellion; however, if the role were better cast, the decision Nandini ultimately has to make would've been far more involving and wrenching. Luckily the other two points in the triangle can compensate: Rai, in a luminous, award-winning performance (largely considered her big dramatic breakthrough--and justifiably so), fills in the conflicted emotional shades that Khan fails to bring with his one-dimensional presence; and Devgan's soulful subtlety does its job in suggesting Sameer to be a more formidable romantic adversary than viewers would see him as being.

HDDCS is available in two separate editions, with a third, U.S.-only release reportedly in the pipeline. A widely available disc from Video Sound is a must to avoid, as not only does it not feature English subtitles for Ismail Darbar's memorable songs, the expansive 2.55:1 frame is non-anamorphically cropped down to 1.78:1. A recently-reissued deluxe edition from Bollywood Entertainment is well worth seeking out instead. This version preserves the correct aspect ratio and, hence, all the vibrant visuals of Anil Mehta's cinematography; as well as features subtitles the songs, which prove to be more plot-advancing and character-enhancing than the Bollywood norm. While nothing short of a massive reshoot/recast/re-edit would correct the film's greatest shortcoming (read: Khan), this edition puts into better perspective the film's reputation as one of Bollywood's crowning achievements in recent years--not only by the first-class transfer, but a second disc featuring a number of clips (however poorly edited-together) from both U.S. and U.K. Bollywood awards ceremonies, including one in which none other than Angelina Jolie presents a trophy alongside reigning B'wood king (and Rai's Devdas co-star) Shahrukh Khan.

Bollywood Entertainment edition specifications: 2.55:1 anamorphic widescreen; Hindi 5.1 Digital; English, Spanish, French, Japanese, and Arabic subtitles. Video Sound edition specifications: 1.78:1 letterbox; Hindi 5.1 Digital; English subtitles.


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