The Movie Report
March 2005

#457 - 459
March 4, 2005 - March 25, 2005

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

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#459 March 25, 2005 by Michael Dequina


#458 March 18, 2005 by Michael Dequina


The Ring Two one-sheet The Ring Two (PG-13) ** 1/2
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If for no other reason, I can appreciate The Ring Two for trying to be its own distinct animal. The cursed videotape is back, but it only serves as a mere jumping point for not-so-innocent little Samara's latest, less technology-rooted reign of terror. But the "terror" remains only in theory as, for all its isolated amusements, this original follow-up to the hit J-horror remake never truly scares.

That's all the more surprising since the film, in a rather inspired move, marks the American debut of Hideo Nakata, the Japanese horror maestro who helmed the film that spawned The Ring, Ringu. To his credit, he does manage to milk some creepiness out of damp carpets and water in general--but then, that's old hat to him, particularly after building a whole film about the evils of wetness in 2002's Dark Water (which, as it happens, is set to get the Hollywood treatment in August, directed by Walter Salles and starring Jennifer Connelly--incidentally, one of the initial choices for the lead in The Ring). Potential for greater creepiness can be mined from the sequel's basic premise. After spreading Samara's killer videotape to save themselves, reporter Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts) and her son Aidan (David Dorfman) have attempted to start over in a new town. But a copy of Samara's tape somehow makes it there as well, and Rachel tries to end Samara's rampage (at least in her area) by destroying this copy. But with this broken ring, Samara then attempts to carry out her dream in the real world by invading Aidan's consciousness.

It's a great hook, but neither Nakata nor returning screenwriter Ehren Kruger never quite figure out what to do with it--not even how to build up to it, as Aidan's increasingly odd (or, should I say, even odder than usual) behavior is treated and played as some sort of mystery when Samara quite clearly takes possession of him not long after Rachel burns the tape. Until the time is right for Rachel to face the issue head-on--that is, the third act home stretch--Nakata and Kruger buy time by introducing a nominal male lead (Simon Baker) even more bland and useless than the original's Martin Henderson, enlisting recognizable faces such as Elizabeth Perkins and Sissy Spacek to do showy cameo turns, and--above all else--throwing in a lot of literally splashy water effects. A fright-wigged Spacek is notable in her one scene and the latter definitely makes for some (no pun intended) cool visuals. But scary? Not especially.

The slack tension and pace hence lend Nakata's admittedly well-crafted climactic set pieces an entirely different effect than one would expect--and, I suspect, than was intended. Instead of coming off as creepy, let alone frightening, the film's final showdowns between Rachel and Samara is entertaining for entirely more action-oriented, popcorn-ready reasons--and a one-liner spat out by Rachel with all the flip swagger of a blockbuster badass cements the decidedly non-scary atmosphere of what should--and could--have been a follow-up as chilling as the first film.

#457 March 4, 2005 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

Be Cool one-sheet Be Cool (PG-13) ***
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The 1995 film adaptation of Elmore Leonard's Get Shorty could be summed up in two words: John Travolta. Forget Pulp Fiction; his performance as mobster-turned-Hollywood hotshot Chili Palmer was the star's true comeback, as he not only charismatically owned the screen, he made it look so damn easy. Watching this belated, ten-years-later sequel, in regards to Travolta, one is tempted to ask... what happened? There he is, looking a lot more fit than he has in recent films, walking and talking like Chili, but something is a bit amiss. Gone is the palpable joy that fueled that first, justly award-anointed (though not even Oscar nominated) performance and in its place is the been-there, done-that detachment of merely getting by for a paycheck.

Luckily director F. Gary Gray has a cast of colorful and (yes) cool characters surround Travolta in Be Cool, in which Chili (or the pale shadow of him, as it were) makes a move to the music business. Sadly one of these characters is not the one played by Pulp co-star Uma Thurman, as her role of a widowed record label owner is a far less interesting "girlfriend" part than Rene Russo's in the original film; as such, their rather protracted dance reunion isn't so much a highlight than a time-filler. Word of mouth is likely to be fueled by Vince Vaughn as an Ebonics-spouting, big pimpin' manager and The Rock as his aspiring actor bodyguard, and they indeed provide the biggest laughs in the entire film; and in smaller roles Cedric the Entertainer and Andre Benjamin also have some choice moments. Be Cool may feel like less like a story than an assemblage of moments and top-notch character acting, but as far as cinematic trifles go, it's guilt-free.

The Jacket one-sheet The Jacket (R) **
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John Maybury's film is by basic definition a time-travel yarn, but to say that is to make this rather turgid drama sound more interesting than it is. In the year 1991, one Jack Starks (Adrien Brody), a veteran of the first Gulf War, is committed to a mental institution after mysteriously being charged with murder; in the hospital, he's routinely put in a straitjacket and thrown in a morgue drawer--where he apparently can transport to the year 2007. In this future year, he meets and bonds with a sad sack young waitress named Jackie (Keira Knightley), and her ties with John's past and her fate provide the thin and sadly predictable narrative focus of what is an initially intriguing concept. Equally intriguing is Brody's performance, which never fails to make Jack's anguish real in the extraordinary context. Knightley, however, continues to prove to be a stunning physical presence but a weak actor, again falling back on teeth-clenched mugging; and Jennifer Jason Leigh and Kris Kristofferson are wasted as hospital staffers.

The Pacifier one-sheet The Pacifier (PG) *
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The funniest moment of this year's Oscar ceremony came not from host Chris Rock (though he did do a great job) but strangely enough during the tribute to director Sidney Lumet, whose retrospective package included a clip of Vin Diesel wearing something akin to a mangled animal carcass on his head. Alas, there's nothing approaching the level of that gutbuster in this family comedy, the Diesel's baldfaced (no pun intended) attempt to diversify Ó la the honorable Gov. Schwarzenegger. Diesel plays a tough military guy assigned to protect and babysit the four bratty children of a widow (Faith Ford) as she travels to retrieve some secret something-or-other left behind by her technogeek husband. Director Adam Shankman fails to surprise on just every level as he goes down the laundry list of lowest-common-denominator gags. Diapers? Check. Funny dance scene? Check. Bonding with cutesy little girl? Check. And so it goes, even throwing in a few added wrinkles such as full-blown production numbers from The Sound of Music (you can take Shankman away from choreography, but you can't take the choreographer out of Shankman) and a thoroughly gratuitous Diesel beefcake scene (foreshadowed with such finesse by earlier spoken comments about his body), but the result is still the same: sheer boredom, unless you're under the age of 7.


Bambi DVD Mulan II DVD Bambi (G)
Disc: ****
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Mulan II (G)
Movie: *; Disc: ** 1/2
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By now, everyone knows the story of this 1942 classic: young deer comes of age in the forest through encounters with friends and one huge, famously traumatizing tragedy which has almost become the film's claim to fame. While the themes and characters still resonate--and how can Thumper the bunny not elicit head-tilted awws?--and the film is still superlative all-ages entertainment, what has been lost in the 60-plus years since its intial release is what a watershed work Bambi was for its time--and Disney's two-disc Platinum Edition DVD sheds ample light on the film's historical significance.

As with previous Platinum Edition releases, the treasure trove of extras can be found on the second disc's "Backstage Disney" section, which features an hour-long documentary of the film's development, production, and reception, featuring comments from modern animation figures such as Pixar's John Lassiter as well as many of the now-elderly voice actors for Bambi and the other forest creatures. Considering how audiences have become more savvy about the art of animation, it's easy to take for granted the technological advances Walt Disney employed for the film, namely the use of a multiplane camera to create an illusion of depth; while addressed in the main documentary, the technique is further explored in a "Tricks of the Trade" excerpt from the old Disneyland television series as well as the 1937 nature-themed short The Old Mill, in which Disney and his crew not only tried out the new multiplane camera but also honed their skills at drawing and animating animals. Shorter documentary featurettes cover world news events during Bambi's premiere in 1942; the restoration process performed on the original film elements; a visit with animator Andreas Deja to the studio animation archives; and a pair of brief storyboarded deleted scenes. Additional background on the production can be found in the sole supplement on disc one, "Inside Walt's Story Meetings," in which transcripts from his concept meetings with artists and animators are acted out in overwrought radio show fashion by voice actors; I would rather there have also been an option to forego the theatrics and simply read the text.

The remaining extras on the packed second disc are skewed toward the younger set: a "Disneypedia" nature segment on actual forest animals; a read-along story with Thumper; eight set-top games; and, rather horrifyingly, a look at the making of a forthcoming straight-to-video follow-up, Bambi and the Great Prince of the Forest. Like the horridly misguided Beauty and the Beast follow-ups, this is a "midquel" that takes place somewhere during the course of the original film, which just points up how thoroughly unnecessary its very existence is.

And so the cheap cash-in machine continues with the follow-up to 1998's underappreciated Mulan. Although Disney direct-to-video sequels have certainly improved on the visual level over the years, crap is still crap no matter what pretty gloss you throw on it, and Mulan II is the latest evidence of that. While far from the striking spectacle that the original is, the polished art and smooth animation are a clear cut above what airs at any time on the tube--some lesser theatrical features, even. But for all the talk about story development the producers and directors rattle off on the disc's supplemental documentary featurettes, there is no disguising that this is one long exercise in wheel-spinning, as there is really nowhere left to go with the titular female soldier (again spoken by Ming-Na, sung by Lea Salonga) once she's won the nation's respect and true love with General Shang (B.D. Wong). As such, the film instead focuses on Mulan and Shang's three obnoxious military buddies and a trio if even more annoying newcomers to the story: three princesses whom the gang must escort across dangerous territory to their pre-arranged weddings. No prizes for anyone who guesses how that turns out, and most definitely not for anyone with the misfortune to watch this utter waste; it's no surprise that Eddie Murphy does not return as the voice of loudmouthed dragon Mushu (voiced by veteran Murphy stand-in Mark Moseley), who is simply unpleasant this time around.

The extras are only slightly better: a look at some deleted scenes, a brief featurette on the voice cast (which conspicuously makes no mention of Moseley, almost so as to fool people into thinking that Murphy indeed reprised his role), a kid-friendly look at Chinese history hosted by Mushu, and a music video (actually, a mere movie clip assembly) for Atomic Kitten's end credits rendition of the forgettable original tune "(I Wanna Be) Like Other Girls."

Bambi DVD specifications: 1.33:1 full frame; English, French, and Spanish 5.1 Surround; English mono; English subtitles; English closed captioning. Mulan II DVD specifications: 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen; English, French, and Spanish 5.1 Surround; English subtitles; English closed captioning. (Walt Disney Home Entertainment)

Nausicań of the Valley of the Wind (PG)
Movie: *** 1/2; Disc: ***
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Porco Rosso (PG)
Movie: ***; Disc: ***
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The Cat Returns (G)
Movie: ***; Disc: ***
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Nausicań DVD After years of keeping them locked somewhere in a studio vault, much to the relief of fans of animation and film in general, Disney is slowly but surely releasing the catalog of titles they acquired from legendary anime house Studio Ghibli, home to Academy Award-winning director Hayao Miyazaki. Heading off the second wave of DVD releases is the film that more or less started it all, 1984's Nausicań, Miyazaki's sophomore directorial effort. An instant sensation during its initial release in Japan, the film is also noteworthy in how it introduces what would be recurring qualities in Miyazaki's work (and most closely be mirrored in 1997's Princess Mononoke): supremely detailed artwork, an otherworldly setting, lots of flying, environmental consciousness, and--above all else--a strong young heroine in the form of the title character.

And Nausicań, princess of the Valley of the Wind, is a screen heroine--or, rather, hero--for the ages. As her land--one of the few pristine, human-inhabited patches on a war-ravaged earth largely covered by a poisonous forest--is under threat by man and nature alike, not only does she engage in the glider-flying, sword-swinging derring-do befitting an action-adventure lead, just as strong is her sense of compassion. That she is as caring as she is courageous, not to mention that said compassion ultimately proves to be her most formidable weapon of all, makes Miyazaki's pacifist, conservationist message all the more powerful.

But make no mistake, this is no soft, touchy-feely enterprise but a tough war epic, and the film accordingly has a stunning and spectacular look. Don't let the 1984 copyright fool you; only in comparison to Miyazaki's later output do the visuals suffer, and then only slightly. The art may not be as detailed and the animation may be more ragged than more recent Studio Ghibli efforts, but as a visual spectacle Nausicań easily outdoes most contemporary tradionally animated features. Joe Hisaishi's synth-inflected score cues may be a little dated, but it's just about the only aspect of this rousing, touching entertainment that doesn't feel over two decades old.

Porco Rosso DVD Miyazaki's frothy, low-key 1992 adventure Porco Rosso does feel dated, but intentionally so, as it is a period piece. Set in 1930's Europe and telling the tale of the titular seaplane-flying bounty hunter, the decidedly more realistic setting is a change of pace for the usually fantasy-minded director, but that hasn't stopped him from adding one surreal quirk: thanks to a mysterious spell, Porco's face is that of a pig. The nature of his curse is never fully explained, only reasoned through rather facile implication (Porco is a male chauvinist and generally pig-headed in the literal sense), and Miyazaki's script as a whole is nowhere near the fairly dense plotting of a Nausicań. Porco is shot down by Curtis, a hotshot American pilot hired by sky pirates; Porco, with the help of a plucky, teenage female engineer, rebuilds his plane for a big rematch. But then story doesn't seem to be Miyazaki's objective here but applying his stunningly detailed art style and fetish for flight sequences to a historical milieu, and he proves adept at evoking nostalgia as he his conjuring up entirely new worlds.

The Cat Returns DVD New worlds are not in short supply in the third title in this release wave, 2002's The Cat Returns, which was directed not by Miyazaki but young protÚgÚ Hiroyuki Morita. The difference is clear from the first frame, as Morita and his team's clean line art style is far less finely detailed. He and screenwriter Reiko Yoshida (working from Aoi Hiragi's graphic novel) do prove to be just as creative and imaginative as the maestro in this whimsical tale of a bored teenage girl whose brave rescue of a cat sets off a chain of increasingly unusual events. The crescendo of craziness, from the cats' rather extreme payback attempts to an unlikely marriage proposal that leads to a journey to the Kingdom of Cats, makes for a brisk, funny, and wholly unique 75-minute ride.

All three of these DVD releases are two-disc editions, but all are far more sparse in the extras department than one would expect. This is especially the case with Porco Rosso, whose one exclusive extra is a very brief interview with producer Toshio Suzuki, in which he reveals that Miyazaki intended the film to be more for adults. Nausicań and The Cat Returns' exclusive extras are more substantial. The latter has a somewhat standard but no less informative making-of documentary originally produced for Japanese television, which traces the concept's rather complex evolution from theme park attraction (!) to feature film. The former's unique extra is the best of the lot, giving a brisk but enlightening look at the history and creation of Studio Ghibli. The remaining extras on all three releases are similar: brief featurettes on the English language rewriting and dubbing processes for the films; the original Japanese trailers and TV spots (curiously, the ones for The Cat Returns aren't subtitled while the others' are); and the second disc is devoted entirely to the complete film (with full audio track accompaniment, in either English or Japanese) in storyboard form--offering an insightful look at the Ghibli creative process.

Nausicań specifications: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; English and Japanese 5.1 surround; English subtitles; English closed captioning. Porco Rosso and The Cat Returns specifications: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; English, French, and Japanese 5.1 Surround; English subtitles; English closed captioning. (Walt Disney Home Entertainment)

Speakeasy DVD Speakeasy (PG-13)
Movie: **; Disc: **
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While HBO cameras followed every (often-wrong) move made by first-time writer-director Pete Jones on the set of Stolen Summer on the first season of Project Greenlight, LivePlanet and Miramax quietly signed a deal with another contest finalist, Brendan Murphy, to direct his runner-up script Speakeasy. The film was completed in 2002, only to sit on the infamous 'Max shelf before being dumped on video at the beginning of this year with very little fanfare--rather curiously at that, considering a third season of the series is gearing up to premiere on Bravo. Seeing the finished film, it's understandable that the film languished in limbo for so long and that, aside from a small-type "A Project Greenlight Film" logo on the front cover, it's been virtually divorced from the franchise as well as given a very perfunctory, no-frills DVD treatment.

Murphy's film does have a couple of things over Jones's contest-winning project from the jump. His story about two strangers, a magician and a pawn shop owner, whose lives literally collide in a traffic accident is far more ambitous than Jones's rote coming-of-age tale; also, it is carried not by neophyte child actors but undersung veterans David Strathairn and Nicky Katt, with other reliable character actors such as Stacy Edwards (as Strathairn's wife) and Christopher McDonald filling out smaller roles. But the positives more or less end there; Murphy was obviously going after an exploration of how chance and coincidence binds people together, as illustrated by the friendship that develops between the magician (Strathairn) and the pawn shop owner (Katt) and the other connections between the characters that are also revealed. Despite the generally solid performances--that is, aside from an awkward turn from director Arthur Hiller and his infamous pompadour, who are inexplicably cast as Edwards's deaf father)--Murphy fails to give us a compelling reason to care about these rather sketchily characters or their equally hazy epiphanies. One is tempted to blame a 86-minute run time, and the rushed nature of some character awakenings (Edwards's in particular) would seem to support that, but then the snail's pace of the talky, inert proceedings make the film--and Murphy--feel like its wasting its precious, limited time.

Specifications: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; English 5.1 Surround; English, French, and Spanish subtitles; English closed captioning. (Miramax Home Entertainment)


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