Pearl Harbor (PG-13)
There comes a time in the life of every popular popcorn filmmaker where dabbling in the tried and true moneymaking material just isn’t enough anymore, so he or she embarks on the grand project that will once and for all prove their true worth as an artist. Every now and again a director passes the test along the lines of James Cameron and his Oscar juggernaut Titanic, but more often than not the end product is something more akin to Tom Shadyac’s unspeakable conduit of sap known as Patch Adams.
Long before stars Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett even flash their pin-up ready mugs onscreen, it becomes abundantly clear toward which category Michael Bay’s attempt at respectability, the epic-sized WWII drama Pearl Harbor, will skew. Barely five minutes into the film, the child stand-in for Hartnett’s Danny is dragged away by his father (William Fichtner) from the kid playing the younger version of Affleck’s Rafe, who then hits his best friend’s dad with a piece of wood and insults him by calling him "German." To the strains of an especially maudlin cue in Hans Zimmer’s score, the Fichtner character turns around and launches into a sobby speech about how he fought in WWI against the Germans, and how he hopes the boys never witness the horrors he had seen while in combat.
Rafe and Danny do grow up to witness wartime horrors, but greater atrocities await them in the form of the many similarly obvious and overheated melodramatic moments that are strewn throughout Randall Wallace’s screenplay. Wallace, who’s also credited with the script for Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, proves with his clumsy work here that it was the director-producer-star’s passionate touch that made that film so special. Bay has his heart in the right place with the ambitious Pearl Harbor, but being the go-to guy for notoriously wham-bam producer Jerry Bruckheimer the past six years hasn’t exactly fostered any skill for turning good intentions into genuinely felt emotion (as that aforementioned scene illustrates too well).
Bay’s ongoing tenure in the School of Bruckheimer--whose unmistakable fingerprints are all over Pearl Harbor--has helped hone a skill for crafting loud and spectacular action sequences, and there’s no debating that the midsection of the three-hour Pearl Harbor is indeed spectacular. No expense was spared to bring to the screen Japan’s surprise December 7, 1941 assault on the American naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Japanese Zeroes drop bombs and torpedoes; aircraft carriers explode and sink; many people are left running and screaming if not bleeding and/or dead. Say what one will about Bay’s previous features Bad Boys, The Rock, and Armageddon, those films did bear the mark of a skilled technician at the helm, and Bay’s know-how with the appropriate pyrotechnic, miniature, and digital work serves the large battle scenes well.
What doesn’t serve Pearl Harbor well, however, is Bay’s unease with the dramatic content, which should give the big set pieces deeper resonance. To say that the action-oriented passages of Pearl Harbor are the most memorable in the film is to damn those impressive technical feats with faint praise, for the less explosive hours that sandwich the attack are tedious at best and laughable at worst. Much like how Titanic isn’t really about the sinking of the big boat, Pearl Harbor isn’t so much a recounting of "the day that will live in infamy" (or, for that matter, a tribute to the courageous efforts of those who served) than it is just a fictional romance that plays out against a real-life tragedy. Unlike Titanic, the love story fails to provide a convincing emotional through-line for the film. The startling lack of chemistry between the three players in the central triangle--Rafe and Danny, who become Army pilots; and Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale), a nurse--renders all the other complaints that can be leveled against the story moot. Yes, every single character (not just the focal trio) is sketchily drawn; yes, there are unintentionally comic moments of melodrama played with all the grace and subtlety of a jackhammer; yes, one can foresee how it’s all going to turn out by the end of the first hour. But with none of the actors displaying a believable emotional investment in each other, how can the audience be expected to care about them?
Not that it’s likely to matter much in the end, anyway. Misleading though it may be, Disney’s decision to downplay the dominant love story and simply sell that shot of a bomb dropping is the right one. After all, not only is it what’ll get butts into the seats, the visceral mayhem and the other element prominently showcased in the ads--cinematographer John Schwartzman’s gorgeous images--are indeed the only major virtues of the entire production. With Bay showing once again that he can blow shit up real good, word-of-mouth on Pearl Harbor, as with Bay/Bruckheimer blockbusters of previous years, will be propelled by nothing else but its sheer spectacle. While that may be good enough for an ever-easy-to-please moviegoing public, it cannot be for Bay, who so clearly, desperately strove for so much more.
Angel Eyes (R)
Jennifer Lopez is now such a multimedia icon that it's easy to forget that her acting skills are what earned her first major notice back in 1997 with her Golden Globe-nominated performance in Selena. So how refreshing--and somewhat surprising--it is to find Lopez following up the vapid vanity vehicle that was The Wedding Planner with Angel Eyes, an intimate character-driven piece that allows her to dispense with all traces of that larger-than-life "J. Lo" persona and show the talent that often gets hidden under all the hype.
The fine work Lopez accordingly does in Angel Eyes is hardly a shock, but the very nature of the film is. In its publicity campaign, Warner Bros. has been working a supernatural angle that is nonexistent in what is a most decidedly down-to-earth drama. Lopez, after Money Train and Out of Sight, adds another law enforcement officer to her filmography as Sharon Pogue, a tough Chicago cop. When a perp gets the best of her and comes thisclose to shooting her point blank, a mysterious stranger named Catch (Jim Caviezel) comes to Sharon's rescue and saves her life. The pair become friends and eventually lovers, but preventing them from achieving a true intimacy is Catch's stubborn refusal to tell Sharon anything about his life before their seemingly chance meeting.
A mystery story is expected to arise from this scenario, but the film ends up going in a different direction. While there are some lingering questions about Catch, writer Gerald DiPego and director Luis Mandoki all but flat out state how Sharon and Catch are connected in the film's opening moments. The real concern of Angel Eyes is how these two characters deal with traumas of the past and how such experiences have shaped them into who they are today. In Sharon's case, it's led her to become a hardened police officer; in Catch's, he transformed himself into a faceless wanderer who tries to do random good deeds for others. What links these two (that is, aside from that "mystery" connection) is their isolation--though for Sharon it's more a result of circumstance while it's a choice for Catch.
Such issues sound overly sticky when described like so, but the understated execution of the material mutes the melodrama and amplifies the realism. Mandoki wisely takes his time building the relationship between Sharon and Catch, and the choice yields obvious benefits in the leads' performances. Lopez and Caviezel don't display an immediate spark--in fact, Mandoki works overtime to establish a certain level of significance in their first big "eyes meeting" scene that isn't inherently felt--but rather ease into a comfortable groove with each other much like how their characters increasingly warm to each other with each meeting. Mandoki's gentle, unhurried touch also informs the individual performances. A characteristically sedate Caviezel can easily be written off as being overly passive, but there's a lot going on in his expressive eyes, and the largely internal slant of his performance gives any external outbursts that much more power and poignance.
And then there's the leading lady herself, who in the initial stages of Angel Eyes appears to be doing a dry run-through of those previous steely law enforcement roles. But as Sharon's feelings for Catch deepen and as she's forced to face certain demons from her family's past, Lopez's work grows layers that are then gradually stripped away, exposing a raw, naked emotional vulnerability by film's end that is quite disarming. Her body, her side music career, and her aggressive knack for self-promotion may be what earns "J. Lo" headlines now, but what will give the name "Jennifer Lopez" some meaning years from now is what she's able to accomplish on the big screen.
Moulin Rouge! (PG-13)
Any illusions of cinematic normalcy fostered by Fox's straight-laced advertising campaign for Moulin Rouge! are shattered the very second the film begins. The camera pushes in on the curtain of a theatre as an orchestra conductor comes into frame. The curtains part to reveal the 20th Century Fox logo, and the conductor dramatically waves his arms to the familiar bombastic melody of the Fox fanfare. Welcome to the wild world of director Baz Luhrmann.
For those who know nothing about the film outside of the publicity campaign, such a device may be really shocking, but anyone who knows anything more will only be taken mildly aback; after all, Moulin Rouge! is a musical. Not the type of dance musical that's come in fashion in recent years, nor a film about musicians that hence has a lot of music--it is a musical in the classic, theatrical "burst into song" tradition. But that's about the only thing traditional about Luhrmann's bold, unique, and ultimately unforgettable feast for the senses.
Some heavy turbulence, however, must be weathered before the film truly takes shape. After that literal curtain raiser and some somber narration by Christian (Ewan McGregor), a writer in 1900 Paris whose flashbacks to the year before make the meat of the film, Luhrmann launches into his hyperactive Romeo + Juliet style of quick cutting, wildly mobile camera work aided by flashy digital effects. But without the built-in story familiarity that came with R+J, the effect is even more chaotic and therefore irritating. As talented young English poet Christian arrives in Paris and falls into the company of Henri de Toulouse Lautrec (John Leguizamo) and his group of absinthe-drinking Bohemians, everything is upped to a strained pitch: the frenetic editing and camera movements, the hammy performances, the labored physical and verbal gags, the indulgent surrealism. When a green fairy (Australian pop diva Kylie Minogue) appears on screen to warble "the hills are alive with the sound of music," it's hard to not react with mouth agape shock--and not in a good way.
Hard as it is to imagine, Luhrmann cranks the style to an even higher level when Christian makes his first visit to the Moulin Rouge, that infamous nightclub known for its can-can dancers. It's understandable that Luhrmann would want to use all his tricks to convey the anarchic abandon of the club and all that takes place there. But the excess in not just the visuals but also the use of music (bits and pieces of familiar pop songs are performed one after another and sometimes on top of each other; for instance, women sing the familiar "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?" of LaBelle's "Lady Marmalade" as men bark out the chorus to Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit") pushes one dangerously close to a need for Excedrin. The relentless razzle dazzle obscures pertinent plot information, such as the introduction of the Duke of Worcester (Richard Roxburgh), a wealthy man whom Moulin Rouge ringleader Harry Zidler (Jim Broadbent) is angling to finance the club's upcoming entertainment extravaganza, the aptly titled Spectacular Spectacular. Key to securing the funding are the seductive charms of Moulin Rouge's crown jewel and the most famous courtesan in Paris, Satine (Nicole Kidman), a.k.a. "the Sparkling Diamond."
Something does come across clearly in this sequence, and that is Christian's immediate attraction to Satine, and with their subsequent meeting in the sultry star's boudoir, Luhrmann finally settles down and begins to find his footing. Pressured to come up with a poem to recite, Christian suddenly bursts out into Elton John's "Your Song," setting the stage for one of the more transporting romantic moments I've seen on screen in a long time; so effective is the number--and so startling is McGregor's fabulous singing voice--that one never questions Satine's sudden reciprocal feelings for Christian. One is barely given a chance to catch one's breath when the beautiful moment abruptly shifts back into one of near-cartoonish slapstick. That right there illustrates the characteristic of Moulin Rouge! that takes even more adjusting to than the conceit of using contemporary pop music in a period context: the fluctuation between and the blend of two diametrically opposing musical theater forms--broad, vaudevillian comedy and operatic melodrama--to create something entirely new and different. To accept Luhrmann's peculiar aim is to embrace the film; to reject it is to land on the "hate it" side of the debate that will inevitably arise with the film's wide release.
Luhrmann has better luck with the drama than the comedy, which for the most part comes as flat-out silly. Leguizamo's Toulouse Lautrec and his gang far from satisfy the second part of their "comic relief" designation, but his screen time is thankfully minimal. The comedy works better when tied to music, as in one late production number that twists a very familiar tune into something quite unexpected (it's best to leave the song a surprise) and cheekily hilarious. The film gets better as it progresses largely because of the gradual shift into more serious and emotional territory. Ironically, Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce have hardly come up with a screenplay of much weight. The central Christian-Satine-Duke love triangle storyline is simplistic; characters are accordingly thin; and the "love is above all" theme is reinforced to a nearly bludgeoning degree. But other aspects of the production, namely performance and music, come together in such a way as to imbue the material with convincing pathos. Kidman, who can carry a tune perfectly well (though nowhere nearly as well as her leading man), is particularly affecting and has a palpable rapport with the also-sympathetic McGregor. The songs chosen by Luhrmann and Pearce creatively and seamlessly move the plot forward, and the inventive use and staging of songs make for some genuinely powerful sequences.
Remaining constant through Moulin Rouge!'s wild ride through a variety tones and styles is its eye-popping look. Luhrmann and production designer Catherine Martin's radical vision of Paris and the Moulin Rouge achieves the two-pronged goal of being believable within the fin-de-siècle time period and serving a surreal enough backdrop for the flights of musical fantasy; of note is the gorgeous and historically correct elephant-shaped building that adjoins the club. The pièce de résistance are the vibrant and inviting colors of Donald McAlpine's photography.
That one point of non-contention won't be enough to prevent a dramatically divided audience reaction to Moulin Rouge!. Musicals are already a hard sell in this cynical day and age, let alone one that dares to take the genre to even greater escapist extremes. But it's that very quality that will win the film its share of admirers, and rightfully so. As with any experiment, certain choices along the way in Moulin Rouge! simply fail, but what counts is the end product--and what ultimately comes through is an undeniably imaginative work that is a glorious testament to the limitless and largely untapped possibilities of cinema.
Given all the advances in computer animation in recent years, for a film that uses the technique to be visually arresting is no longer quite enough to really distinguish it. As DreamWorks' enormously entertaining fairy tale send-up Shrek proves, the same low-tech requirements hold in the high-tech world of digital cinema: it all starts with the script.
And what a witty winner of one is given Shrek by scribes Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, Joe Stillman, and Roger S.H. Schulman. In a land inhabited by a number of classic fairy tale creatures, the title character (voiced by Mike Myers) is an ogre who is called on by the evil ruler Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow) to rescue the beautiful princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) from a remote castle surrounded by lava and guarded by a dragon. Farquaad's big plan is to turn his land of Duloc into a grand kingdom, and the only way to do so is to marry a princess--hence the rescue of Fiona; however, that may less easy as it appears, for on their journey home with Shrek's motormouthed donkey sidekick (Eddie Murphy), Shrek and Fiona find that other is a lot more than meets the eye.
Casting an ogre in the part of the hero is just one of the ways Shrek tweaks the traditional fairy tale model. Particularly prone to potshots are the conventions perpetuated by a certain company whose mascot is a mouse. For example, when some characters come out of nowhere and burst into a spontaneous song number as in many selections from "The Masterpiece Collection" DVD and video series, they are greeted with a severe Crouching Tiger/Matrix-style butt-kicking; and there's a priceless gag that won't allow you see Snow White's "I'm Wishing" scene in quite the same light ever again. Furthermore, Duloc is more of a merchandising and tourism spot than most kingdoms, save a certain "magic" one also known as "The Happiest Place on Earth."
The script peppered with so many sharp satirical barbs at fairy tales and also pop culture, Shrek's sense of humor is clearly and surprisingly skewed toward the adults in the audience, but that doesn't mean that the kids won't be suitably amused. A fair amount of jokes will fly over their heads, but there are many they will get, and the amazing degree of photo realism in the animation--a huge step up from PDI's previous effort for Dreamworks, Antz--will certainly hold their attention.
Perhaps even more engaging to the tots is the fact that it, in the end, tells a very satisfying fairy tale story. For all their smart-alecky quips, the writers and directors Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson have enough heart to also honor those same conventions at which they poke good-natured fun. Thanks to likable, well-drawn lead characters that are further energized by terrific vocal work (of the cast, Murphy is the scene-stealing standout), Shrek is truly able to have its cake and eat it too--not only in terms of its intent, but also by just being a lot of fun for any and every audience.
When shooting began on Startup.com back in 1999, directors Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim merely had the intention of tracing an Internet startup's rise to certain financial success. What they ended up stumbling upon turned out to be a much juicier story as their subject, GovWorks.com, became one of the many casualties of the infamous dot-com crash. Hegedus and Noujaim wisely eschew traditional narration devices of voiceover and onscreen text and simply let the viewer be a fly on the wall as ambitious twentysomethings Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman plunge into a venture that not only turns out to be a financial failure but one to their near-lifelong friendship. While the audience's emotional investment in the story is limited by Isaza Tuzman's rather off-putting arrogance--one almost too eagerly awaits his comeuppance--the film is a compelling and important document of the 'Net's boom and (still-continuing) bust period.
The Mummy Returns (PG-13)
The title of The Mummy Returns is about as truthful of one you're likely to find. More or less a wholesale recycling of the 1999 original, writer-director Stephen Sommers gives audiences exactly what they expect. For this non-fan of the first film, that's hardly a good thing.
If nothing else, even with a two-hour-plus running time, The Mummy Returns does move at a clip. Free from any requirement of exposition (with one fairly minor exception), the film plunges headlong into the continuing adventures of Rick (Brendan Fraser) and Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) without so much as a flash of a title card. Eight years, a wedding, and a scamp of a son (Alex, played by Freddie Boath) have not changed much of anything, for they are still rummaging through--and destroying--ancient Egyptian ruins as the film begins. It would only follow that such behavior would place the O'Connell trio, Evelyn's wimpy brother Jonathan (John Hannah), and ally Ardeth (Oded Fehr) back on a collision course with that deadly mummy of the title, Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo), who has been resurrected by the reincarnation of his beloved Anck-Su-Namun (Patricia Velasquez). But this terrible twosome may pale in comparison to the deadly Scorpion King (played in the film's opening minutes--and only those minutes--by WWF superstar Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) and his armies, whom Imhotep must defeat to achieve world domination.
In short, it's business as usual in The Mummy Returns. The action sequences are more plentiful, and the effects as a whole are improved. That said, Sommers and his crew still haven't worked out some technical kinks from the first film, namely those pesky scarab beetles, which look as CG as ever. But this is less of a stand-alone movie than a pastiche of pieces from The Mummy, and on a rare occasion the lifting works; arguably the previous film's best effect, the sand head chasing the airplane, is redone more spectacularly as a water head--make that a wall of water with a head--chasing down a dirigible. More often, though, the bits borrowed are duds that never worked in the first place; case in point, the cutesy "Evelyn knocks over the bookcases" scene in the original is echoed when Alex knocks over a bunch of pillars.
If there's any change evident in The Mummy Returns, it's in the character of Evelyn. This Evelyn only shares a name and a portrayer, for the sexed-up woman warrior (complete with bosomy, low-cut blouses) is worlds apart from the nerdy, sub-Kate Capshaw whiner in the first film. But this step in the right direction is marred by an Sommers' pointlessly complex explanation for the character shift. It's not enough for her to have simply toughed up in the intervening years; no, Sommers slips in a needless bit of retroactive continuity that makes no sense in light of the previous film's depiction of Evelyn. Perhaps it's nitpicking to criticize a no-brainer flick like The Mummy Returns on the basis of characterization, but filmmakers should play fairly within the rules they set up for themselves.
I guess the one rule Sommers does hold true to is to make sure there's at least one annoying character in the mix, and to compensate for the changes in Evelyn, he throws in two. Seen fairly briefly but whose irksome qualities linger is the dirigible operator, an anti-comic sidekick in the Jar Jar Binks mold. Showcased a bit more (for lack of a better word) "generously" is Alex, who is less precocious and spunky than stubborn and bratty in the hands of Boath, a truly wretched child actor.
Sinking The Mummy Returns is the same fault that ruined The Mummy--an overly jokey tone that never once suggests real danger and therefore suspense, unlike the Indiana Jones films it so clearly emulates. There's a golden opportunity to serve up something of a real scare in a sequence where men standing in a tall grass field are picked off one by one by a mysterious, unseen force or creature. It's not an original idea--Steven Spielberg did something similar in The Lost World: Jurassic Park, for one. But any promise is rapidly deflated when it's not, say, velociraptors at work but... killer midget monkey things. 'Nuff said.
A Knight's Tale (PG-13)
No, "He will rock you" is not just some cutesy, pseudo-trendy tagline to sell writer-director Brian Helgeland's medieval jousting adventure. As seen in the film's bizarre opening credits scene, where the 14th Century tournament audience not only claps the beat of Queen's sports arena staple "We Will Rock You" but actually sing the lyrics, it's a stylistic statement. In a blatant attempt to cater to young audiences in this century, Helgeland juxtaposes period details with classic rock, contemporary vernacular, and other trappings of this day and age. So a big homecoming is scored to "The Boys Are Back in Town"; a young man is taken by a "foxy lady"; a blacksmith's symbol bears a resemblance to a certain sports equipment manufacturer's logo.
The irony is that this briskly paced, lightweight story of William (Heath Ledger), a British commoner who masquerades as a knight to enter the jousting tournament circuit would certainly have enough youth appeal without such a gimmick--and it actually would have been better without them, for the sight of things like a young noblewoman's (blah newcomer Shannyn Sossamon, whose character is fancied by William) hair spray-heavy 'dos, are more of a distraction than any type of enhancement. It's as if Helgeland didn't have enough confidence in his own material's basic appeal that he resorted to desperate pandering--which is exactly what things as a dance number with decidedly anachronistic moves feel like. And that's all the more unfortunate given what Helgeland does right, such as Paul Bettany's inspired performance as William's wacky wordsmith of a squire, a fellow by the name of Geoffrey Chaucer.
Pavilion of Women (R) Pavilion of Women is quite obviously a labor of love for its star, award-winning Chinese actress Luo Yan. Not only did she produce this adaptation of Pearl S. Buck's 1946 novel of the same name, she also took it upon herself to co-write the screenplay. With those facts, and the film's lush look and grand historical backdrop, in mind, Pavilion of Women sure seems like an "important" film. But the only importance anyone is likely to associate with this overblown melodrama is self-importance.
The key problem with Pavilion lies not in incompetence but in misdirected passion. Luo spent years to get this project made, and her emotional investment in the material comes through in her sympathetic performance as the wealthy and intelligent Madam Wu. But her intimacy with the material has apparently blinded her to the fact that this sudsy tale is undeserving of the would-be epic treatment she, co-scripter Paul R. Collins, and director Yim Ho have given it. The setting of 1938 China and the onset of WWII are a mere gloss to what is a clumsily executed Harlequin-level soaper. When Madam Wu decides to wipe herself clean of her husband (Shek Sau) on her 40th birthday by giving him a young concubine she names Chiuming (Yi Ding), it is but one decision that brings scandal upon their reputable household. That proves to be only the beginning, for the hiring of Andre (Willem Dafoe), an American priest who runs a local orphanage, as her youngest son Fengmo’s (John Cho) tutor ends up awakening various passions of heart and mind in Madam Wu.
Such tales of forbidden love--make that love in general--can only work when there are some detectable sparks between the paramours, and Luo and Dafoe only manage a friendly rapport at best, never mind the fact the miscast Dafoe (can anyone really buy him as some paragon of romantic idealism?) makes the whole “amorous priest” notion that much creepier. But it’s difficult to imagine any pair of actors surviving the torrent of clichés that flood the parallel love stories (the other being the attraction between Fengmo and Chiuming). When a couple consummates their relationship in a hayloft as the already-overwrought score (by Conrad Pope) hits a bombastic crescendo, it’s difficult to stifle a laugh.
Adding to the artificiality of Pavilion of Women is the fact that it was filmed in English. Obviously a move to ensure funding and help global marketing, in this instance art should have been chosen over commerce. While Luo speaks English with ease, as do the various Asian-Americans in the cast, others have audible trouble--that is, if they’re not victim to some obvious dubbing. But I guess that only suits Pavilion of Women, which is characterized by a more problematic disconnect: between the big, emotional epic it believes itself to be and the antiquated slice of hokum it truly is.
Beautiful Creatures (R)
Two women, Petula (Rachel Weisz) and Dorothy (Susan Lynch), bond after Dorothy accidentally causes the death of Petula's abusive boyfriend, which sets off a chain reaction of violent and shocking events--or, rather, violent events that are supposed to be shocking, for the well of surprise is all but parched in the post-Tarantino seriocomic crime caper genre, to which this film belongs. Despite a solid rapport between the leads and the slick packaging provided by director Bill Eagles, the twists traced by writer Simon Donald have been travelled too many times before, and none of the wrinkles he and Eagles add are distinctive enough to break this just-competently done film from the large pack.
Sylvester Stallone wrote the script for this car racing extravaganza, and contrary to what one would expect, it's not a big ego trip star vehicle. That covers the good news about his abomination of a screenplay, reportedly the product of years of research that in no way show up on screen. The film is less a look at Formula One than a pilot for a flat sub-Aaron Spelling sudser that just happens to be set in the world of auto racing. Bad boy champ Beau (Til Schweiger) dumps longtime galpal Sophia (Estella Warren) who runs to good guy rookie upstart Jimmy (Kip Pardue). His mentor is comeback trail has-been Joe (Stallone), whose ex-wife/token soap bitch Cathy (Gina Gershon), who's now married to Latin hunk o' burnin' (literally--oops, did I just give away a plot twist?) love Memo (Cristian de la Fuente). Then there's a heavily made-up and/or face-lifted Burt Reynolds as a wheelchair-bound racecar owner who will do whatever it takes to win.
Luckily director Renny Harlin packs in enough quick edits, gratuitous closeups of scantily-clad women, and awesome race footage to keep the audience at least awake, but all his pyrotechnics aren't enough to inject the slightest bit of life into the zombie that is Pardue, easily the most insulting young "talent" to ever be shoved down moviegoer's throats. As cool as the digital work used for the spectacular crashes is, certainly some effects could have been used to animate that flesh and blood block of balsa.
The Price of Milk (R)
Harry Sinclair's romantic fantasy is certainly likable, not to mention beautiful to behold. On a dairy farm in the picturesque New Zealand countryside live Lucinda (Danielle Cormack) and Rob (Karl Urban), a young couple perfectly in love--perhaps too perfect, for Lucinda is happy yet hardly ecstatic when Rob pops the question. So at the urging of friend Drosophilia (Willa O'Neill), she starts fights with Rob in order to enjoy the added spark that can only come after anger and reconciliation. But Lucinda appears to cross a line when she sells his precious cows. Needless to say, this fairy tale-like story is quite quirky, but what starts as a dollop of eccentricity and whimsy grows into something that overwhelms the charming performances and romance. Effective touches of magical realism, namely a mysterious old woman (Rangi Motu) who plays a key role in Lucinda and Rob's relationship, end up taking a back seat to flat-out strange ones, (such as a golf team involved in some strange scheme to rob the townspeople of their quilts), thus obscuring the emotions of the piece.
Time and Tide (R)
Free of the dead weight known as Jean-Claude Van Damme, with whom he was saddled in two failed attempts at Hollywood hackwork, Hong Kong action director Tsui Hark reaffirms his status as a master and innovator of the genre in this cinematic thrill ride. The set pieces here are unlike anything that has graced the screen--not so much in terms of staging but in how they're shot. When was the last time you've seen the camera seemingly defy all scientific laws by flying from inside the chamber of one person's gun to the other, or seen the camera travel through an apartment that has seemingly frozen in time in mid-explosion? Exactly.
So what exactly is Time and Tide about? Some John Woo-style bonding between two similar men who find themselves on conflicting sides: a young bodyguard (Nicholas Tse) and an older mercenary (Wu Bai). That, the fact that both have a child on the way, and that there are some bad guys from South America running around, are about as much as anyone is likely to make out of the virtually inscrutable story. But Tsui's bravura technique practically invites you to give up on making any narrative sense of it all and just sit back for the ride--and what a spectacular and exhilarating one it is, plot be damned.
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Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (R) Movie: ;
To put it mildly, Book of Shadows, the sequel to The Blair Witch Project, has its share of detractors (and rightfully so). But who knew that among them is none other than the film's director/co-writer himself, Joe Berlinger. I'm sure he has a greater affection for the film than most, but he barely stops short of saying that he hated the theatrical cut of the film on the DVD's audio commentary track. Berlinger is remarkably up front about the various problems with the production--the rushed production schedule, the studio-imposed reshoots and recuts--and how he feels about the result, and it's almost surprising that Artisan let all his words slide.
Maybe it's because the film is so largely considered a failure by critics and moviegoers alike that the studio figured there's no use in suppressing Berlinger's bitterness. What the studio has suppressed, however, is his original cut of the film, about which he goes in great detail in commentary. None of the gratuitous shots of gore were in his original version, nor was the film cut in its current nonlinear (and seemingly haphazard) style. Berlinger's original version was a more straightforward treatment of his story about five Blair Witch Project obsessives who gradually learn the truth of a mysteriously forgotten night they spend in the woods. As Berlinger describes it, his cut sounds like a far more interesting film, and it would have been nice to see that version also included on the platter.
However, like the current incarnation of the film, Berlinger's original Book of Shadows does not sound the least bit scary. In fact, it sounds even more pretentious and bludgeoning in its exploration of the theme of "the danger of blurring the line between fantasy and reality"--much like how he constantly reiterates this point in the commentary track. Berlinger's pretensions are given a full showcase in the DVD booklet, which contains a slightly reworked but still long-winded "director's statement" that appeared in the film's press kit for the theatrical run.
Berlinger's commentary is but one of the many extras included on Artisan's well put-together but somewhat peculiar disc. Carter Burwell, whose eerie and unconventional score is one of the film's few virtues, also provides some insightful commentary, albeit only for three specific scenes. In addition to the basic features of production notes and cast and crew biographies are here, the supplements also include a useless segment called "The Secret of Esrever," that supposedly reveals extra clues to the Blair Witch "mystery" when played in reverse (hence, "esrever"); and a live performance of a soundtrack cut by Godsmack, which follows a token promo for the soundtrack album.
One wonders why there is even a promo for the soundtrack on the disc, for it's a revolutionary "DVD + CD" disc that has all the DVD content on one side and CD-playable audio on the other. No less than two versions of the Godsmack selection are included along with a couple other songs and Burwell's complete score. It's hard to imagine anyone wanting to shell out for the soundtrack album after buying this disc, which will satisfy anyone's Book of Shadows needs and then some.
Specifications: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; English 5.1 Surround; French and Spanish Dolby Surround; English closed captioning; DVD-ROM features; CD audio. (Artisan Home Entertainment)
Second Skin (R) Movie: ;
Without the built-in awareness that comes with theatrical releases, direct-to-video movies have to work extra hard to generate interest with their box synopsis. That said, it's a bit ridiculous how Artisan's box for Second Skin follows the Robert Zemeckis School of Trailering and gives away nearly every turn of its story. To make matters worse, the film is one of those thrillers whose very existence is based on its twists getting a jolt out of the audience.
But even if so many of its developments weren't spoiled by overeager copy writers, this piece of product wouldn't get much of a rise out of audiences. This is not so much due to incompetence (though, embarrassingly, director Darrell James Roodt's name is spelled two different ways in the opening credits) than the film's overall familiarity. In what appears to be a stroke of bad luck, Natasha Henstridge's improbably named Crystal Ball is hit by a car outside of a used bookstore owned by one Sam Kane (Angus MacFadyen). An amnesiac Crystal becomes friends and then lovers with Sam, but before long their shady pasts catch up with them. The cast, which also includes Peter Fonda as a baddie, does a decent enough job, and Roodt keeps the action moving briskly enough, but the film never generates any suspense, and the twists not only go in expected directions, but pop up in all the expected places.
Per the norm with direct-to-video releases, the DVD is a dry, barebones affair with only a trailer and talent biographies counting as supplements.
Specifications: 1.77:1 anamorphic widescreen; English and French 5.1 Surround; English closed captioning. (Artisan Home Entertainment)
The Criterion Collection
Criterion Collection #104 Movie: ;
Masahiro Shinoda's 1969 screen adaptation of a 1720 banraku puppet play is striking and unusual in a number of respects--for a start, the minimalist sets and what appear to the untrained eye to be on-camera stagehands, all dressed in black, who move props when not simply standing around and watching the action. But those unusual touches pale in comparison to the intensity of the performances. When the story revolves around a married paper merchant who makes a suicide pact with the prostitute with whom he's in love, heightened emotions are expected. But the raw, melodramatic extremes of the acting travel far beyond even those expectations.
The amped-up line readings and actions initially feel a bit much, but they are crucial in creating the story's operatic sweep. The title, not to mention a shot near the beginning of the film, leave no doubt as to the outcome of the film, so the power of the piece comes through the execution of all that builds up to it. The apparent melodrama of stars Kichiemon Nakamura (who plays the merchant) and Shima Iwashita (who, in a fascinating choice, plays both the wife and the mistress) becomes palpable emotion that becomes increasingly, disturbingly intense as they come closer to their ultimate fate. The shattering impact of the finale certainly owes a large debt to their efforts, but it's Shinoda's unique visionary that makes the entire picture stay with you.
As with all Criterion releases, the image quality of Double Suicide is spectacular; the stark contrast between the bold blacks and garish whites of Toichiro Narushima's cinematography is as stunning as anything else about the production. Unlike most Criterion discs, however, extras are conspicuously lacking. Given the obscurity of Japanese theatrical traditions on this side of the Pacific, some documentary featurettes or even text background on banraku would have been welcome; alas, the only thing approaching such supplements is an essay in the booklet, which only touches on the subject in relation to the film.
Specifications: 1.33:1 full frame; Japanese Dolby Digital mono; optional English subtitles. (The Criterion Collection/HomeVision)