Friday, December 27, 2002

Antwone Fisher / *** (2002)

The year has indeed been kind to actors trying their hand at motion picture directing. Consider first the undertaking made by Bill Paxton earlier this year with the magnificent "Frailty," and then think of the latest of these efforts, Denzel Washington's "Antwone Fisher." Neither alike in either subject matter or payoff, they're products of men who have never once stepped outside of the view of a camera lens, and yet with one stroke of curiosity seem to have learned more about how to use one than most people do in an entire lifetime. Does that mean they're natural born filmmakers? Perhaps. But as is the case with all things new and unfamiliar, sometimes there is still room for improvement.

Evelyn / *** (2002)

What a sweet, gentle and feisty movie "Evelyn" is. And what an admirable little person its title heroine turns out to be, a redheaded Irish girl who isn't afraid to speak her mind and voice her concerns even if it means certain punishment from her overly-strict superiors. At the opening of the movie, which is based on true-life events in the early 1950s, the vivacious Evelyn Doyle (Sophie Vavasseur) and her two brothers are sent off into Irish orphanages following the abandonment of their flaky mother, their father, Desmond Doyle (Pierce Brosnan), seeing no need for the government to resort to such actions because of his own availability to raise them. Lifestyle and capability aside, however, he simply can't avoid the harsh reality of Irish law: that children are forbidden to live with just their fathers unless consent is given from the mother as well, a requirement that is challenged by the fact that dear old mom has seemingly disappeared from radar.

Max / **** (2002)

The moviegoer has come to expect almost anything from the filmmaker in these recent times, but it is doubtful one could have ever anticipated a movie that tackles the maniacal persona of Adolf Hitler on such an objective and fearless level. In Meyno Meyjes's "Max," which is less about the Max Rothman character than it is about the future German dictator, the impression is given that Hitler was not always the demonic figure we consider him to have been, but at one time simply an eccentric human being who was pushed beyond the borders of sanity and never able to find his way back. Historically, the movie probably follows accurately with what has always been said about him prior to World War II, but will any of that matter to the viewer? To discuss him in any context other than being evil is still quite risky; this is, after all, the most despicable living creation that existed during the 20th century.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding / **** (2002)

"My Big Fat Greek Wedding" is what you refer to as one of the great "grinning comedies" of our time, in which every scene and every character, no matter how silly or odd, leaves the viewer smiling from ear-to-ear in constant and utter delight. No doubt you've heard about the film by now, anyway; drawing audiences into the theaters week after week with few major attendance declines, the vehicle survives at the box office even most high profile releases fall by the wayside. It has even been said that movie might be a Best Picture contender for next year's Academy Awards. And if it is, what a great pleasure that would be! How often, after all, can you recall a PG-rated romance comedy that had enough exuberant charm and spirit to actually deserve a crack at the top prize?

The Pianist / **** (2002)

If Roman Polanski were not the same man who directed "Chinatown" and "Rosemary's Baby," he might never have been equipped enough to tell a story as difficult and poignant as that of "The Pianist." It's easy to pretend that a narrative of this emotional caliber simply requires a filmmaker with a distinctive knowledge of cinema, but the demand goes far beyond that; compassion and association are prerequisites as well. Not surprisingly, Polanski's greatest films explore parallel subjects—victimization, claustrophobia, and an underlying dogged hope that keeps the human spirit elevated to survival—and having mastered the themes before most modern directors even knew how to use a camera, he sort of becomes fated into the position, as if every significant product in his career has merely been a prelude to him forging this one. The fact that the story itself correlates with most of what went on in his own early life doesn't hurt matters, either.

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers / **** (2002)

The opportunity to see history being made on the movie screen comes but once or twice a generation, and right here, right now, one of those rare events is happening with Peter Jackson's adaptation of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Last winter saw the audience on its first rich excursion into Tolkien's Middle-Earth with "The Fellowship of the Ring," and now comes "The Two Towers," the second film in the series, which picks up exactly where its predecessor left off, diving headfirst into the material as if not a moment has gone by since we were last stranded in the realm of wizards, mortals, elves, dwarfs and hobbits. Much has happened since the adventure was halted 12 months ago—the first endeavor received 13 Academy Award nominations, grossed over half a billion dollars, and was even recently released as an extended cut on DVD—and yet the initial experience remains fresh in the mind, enduring even when other ambitious projects in that time frame have been completely forgotten (the latest "Star Wars," anyone?).

Brotherhood of the Wolf / **** (2002)

The French must know a lot more about cinema than we have ever given them credit for, particularly judging by the most recent products from their soils that have found an audience here across the Atlantic. The new millennium opened to the arrival of the rich and comedic "The Taste of Others," while the delightfully-vivid character study "Amelie" from last year provoked the curious eye almost as much as it exhilarated the viewer's spirit. The secret to the success of these two particular endeavors, and perhaps as it has always been with moviemaking in the country, is about stretching the cultural barriers beyond their own, embracing both French fundamentals as well as those of other civilizations to package an effort both rich and diverse in its techniques and legacies. It can even be argued that French movies aren't entirely French anymore, but Asian, American, Italian, British, and Indian as well.

Monday, December 2, 2002

Eight Crazy Nights / zero stars (2002)

It must be more than just sheer coincidence that the worst animated film since "Cool World" is being released alongside one of the most brilliant of the recent past. Adam Sandler's aptly-titled "Eight Crazy Nights" finds itself being unleashed on reputable theater screens during the same weekend as Disney's highly-anticipated "Treasure Planet," the first traditional feature cartoon since "Titan A.E." to rise above the mold and pull the viewers into an experience both adventurous and exhilarating. Lumping these two products together, if you think about it, is an ideal marketing campaign—if the moviegoers are going out of their way to see a cartoon during Thanksgiving, do they really care enough to make a choice between two major openings? Of course not. And given the fact that Sandler's name—not to mention the holiday theme—is attached to this one, that's probably exactly what Columbia Pictures is depending on.

The Santa Clause 2 / *** (2002)

At the beginning of "The Santa Clause 2," a plane with tracking systems begins picking up signs of disturbance towards the north pole, the lyrics of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" riding the waves that the aircraft's crew are closely monitoring. Meanwhile, deep beneath the thick sheets of ice, Santa himself and all his little helpers rush against the clock to silence the source of this little rumpus, hopefully before any outside influences get too close to the source and discover their well-hidden village. It wouldn't be a terrible thing, we gather, if all the little workshops and townhouses for elves and little toy factory workers were discovered, but we can imagine the frustration of good ol' St. Nick—it's so hard, after all, to keep an effective assembly line going when you've got unwanted visitors threatening to disrupt your intricate pattern all the time.

Solaris / *1/2 (2002)

Steven Soderbergh's "Solaris" plays like a blender working overtime on the puree dial, mix-mashing character conflicts, fated love stories, scientific mysteries and visual wonders so savagely that we're never given the opportunity to see the result materialize. It's not hard to accept that a lot of time and effort went into putting a film of this extreme detail together (note that James Cameron is one of the primary producers), but it's considerably more difficult to assume why anyone even bothered, especially since the outcome fails to barely come off as anything resembling a finished product. The movie is more like a series of vague outlines than a completed opus, touching base with lots of bright ideas without actually pulling through with a full treatment.

Treasure Planet / ***1/2 (2002)

If Robert Louis Stevenson had lived long enough to see his creative flair dispatched into the mighty cosmos, he would have undoubtedly been overjoyed by any result. But in the latest Disney animated feature, the ambitious and exciting "Treasure Planet," the compelling scope of his most unforgettable written work is set against one of the most bright and rousing canvases seen in standard feature animation since "Titan A.E.", a look that doesn't simply flood the screen with its color and energy, but pulls the viewer into the experience. This isn't a product in the grand tradition of the best Disney cartoons, mind you, because it follows no tradition but its own. Like last year's "Atlantis," only on a much wider scale, the movie is in complete awe of itself, devised from no direct pattern or formula, and yet crafted with the most essential pleasures in mind.

Friday, November 15, 2002

Ghost Ship / * (2002)

The cycle of cheesy but artsy old horror film remakes that Dark Castle Entertainment initiated three years ago has finally descended to the bottom. And that metaphor couldn't be any more appropriate for a film like "Ghost Ship," the third and clumsiest release under the studio's name, which treads the familiar lines of its predecessors without actually delivering on many of the promises. What promises do I speak of, though? Consider the source before you ask that question; this is, after all, the same production company behind updates of "House on Haunted Hill" and "Thirteen Ghosts," films that are generally remembered as being very flashy in special effects but not very gutsy (or interesting) in writing.

The Grey Zone / *** (2002)

The most familiar stories in history tend to be those that result in widespread catastrophe, but even that doesn't begin to describe the horrors that resulted from Nazi Germany in the early 1940s, when Adolf Hitler's rise to power resulted in the merciless slaying of over 6 million Jews in Europe. It has always been said that war is hell, but just how close can one possibly get to that realization? The countless innocent lives that were tragically cut short by gas chambers, ovens, firing squads and twisted forms of medical experimentation are probably the only people who can answer that question, and yet any attempts for us to imagine those horrors are virtually impossible.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets / **1/2 (2002)

There is a certain nostalgic potency to how the "Harry Potter" stories are launched, as if they've been modeled after every great childhood fantasy of the past without actually indicating it specifically. In them, the hero of the hour, one Harry James Potter, is anchored into unfair obscurity by his nearest relatives, treated like a slave day and night, and watched over like the most unwanted son of the already-dysfunctional family unit. And yet no one ever quite realizes just how smart, how charming and how brilliant he is beneath the quiet facade; they sort of just follow the pattern as if he's a hood ornament rather than a personality, unaware that they are merely spectators in his complex and exciting growth as someone whose differences can be embraced rather than exploited.

Punch Drunk Love / ***1/2 (2002)

Somewhere outside the familiar little corners of Hollywood, director Paul Thomas Anderson is meticulously adding new threads onto his elaborate fabric of quirky but jarring Southern California life. His ever-growing opus, founded on the drug-ridden labor of porn from "Boogie Nights" and evolved by the highly-compassed human vignettes of "Magnolia," is not merely a giant art project he tinkers with ever so often, but more like a rich alternate reality that is being discovered little by little with each new endeavor. His movies have all the symbolism and intricacy of the great American motion pictures, and yet they exist on a plane laced with fantasy rather than ordinary thought. Consider the jolting shock of "Magnolia"s climax, or the cartoonishly large "instrument" that everyone is converged on in "Boogie Nights"—once these devices are removed from the equation, the results occupy all the ordinary values and traits of the most classic human dramas of our time. The fact that Anderson is able to anchor these elements in a dimension bound by very few laws of realism suggests just how capable he is as a director.

Monday, October 21, 2002

Formula 51 / zero stars (2002)

A series of new words need to be invented just to describe how wretchedly awful "Formula 51" really is, the new vehicle starring one the box office's most relentless legends, Samuel L. Jackson. This isn't just your standard bad movie, but one that abandons every established rule of a repulsive endeavor and creates a chain of new ones simply for itself. The movie is a sad, sorry, contemptible pile of garbage, and how any studio has the balls to back it in a major market, I will never understand.

Knockaround Guys / 1/2* (2002)

So there it was, the single most joyless film of the year, ejecting its pitiful energies off the screen in the same revolting way that I was staring at it. When the lights finally went up and the closing credits began to roll, the feeling of frustration polluted the air like expired milk, and I remember wondering how, just how, it was possible for any sane human being to unleash this kind of garbage on unsuspecting moviegoers in the hopes that someone would find it amusing. "Well that was dumb!", one of my colleagues remarked at the theater exit. Close call, but not quite an appropriate one; after all, even dumb movies are at least ambitious enough to be negative. When it comes to "Knockaround Guys," the latest clone to the ongoing "Reservoir Dogs" legacy, the only remotely energetic aspect of the project is the fact that characters occasionally use words with more than two syllables.

Moonlight Mile / ** (2002)

The earliest sign that Brad Silberling's "Moonlight Mile" won't be anything close to what other film writers are saying about it comes in during the movie's critical first few minutes, where characters are sleepwalking through an indecisive reality in search of a logical response towards the death of a family member. We watch on as Joe (Jake Gyllenhaal) is invited by the girlfriends of his deceased fiancee to a local bar for some time "away from it all." He pops a coin into the jukebox in the back room, and heads turn at his song of choice. Out from the back enters Bertie (Ellen Pompeo), a fetching young woman whom Joe met a day before at the post office (she helped him retrieve all of his wedding invitations before they were mailed). They notice each other instantly, but not a word is said; instead, she approaches him, falls into his arms, and they dance to the music. The awkwardness of the scene is immediately identifiable—our familiarity with the characters and their situations is very rough at this point, and nothing is explained of their reactions or their feelings until much later in the cycle. No, this isn't one of those sweet and tender moments that most would have you believe; reflecting the picture as a whole, the moment feels rather labored.

Red Dragon / ***1/2 (2002)

The recent surge of movie villain admiration could not have arrived at a better time than now, as one of the most notorious of his field, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, finds himself worming his way back onto motion picture screens in Brett Ratner's "Red Dragon." In the opening scenes of this "The Silence of the Lambs" prequel, the camera descends into the quiet, ordained audience of a classical music concert like a magnet being drawn to its attraction, a man whose brilliant and cunning psyche spawns the kind of fascination that make his mental corruption seem less distracting than it should be. He's a dark and sinister man at heart, but the calm behavior suggests otherwise; unlike most film antagonists, Lecter realizes the physical limits and works around them, tackling his casualties in ways that no jail cell can barricade. When he is confronted in "Red Dragon" by the man who caught him years before, there is no negative reaction or hatred in the doctor's eyes; he simply smiles, listens to the agenda of his visitor, and then compares himself to him. "Perhaps you're more like me than you care to imagine," he insists with sly enthusiasm.

The Ring / ***1/2 (2002)

"The Ring" is an oasis for audiences dehydrated of creativity in modern movie thrillers, an exciting and often brilliant ghost story that penetrates the core of formula, rips it wide open and erases every trace of cliché like a hit man taking special care to clean up after himself. Most films in this vein work against the mold simply because filmmakers want them to, but seldom do they seem to abolish the standards without even trying, or without so much as a concern of undertaking the task. Don't ask me to explain how or why, but something about this creepy and unnerving suspense vehicle is almost fortuitous about itself, as if the writer never entertains the notion that the script is shattering boundaries almost as easily as it is telling a story.

The Rules of Attraction / *** (2002)

Roger Avery's "The Rules of Attraction" launches with these harsh words of wisdom: the first rule about the rules of attraction is that there are no rules. Indeed, as revealed through the warped character arcs exposed to the audience during the course of this two-hour acid trip, such an announcement couldn't be closer to the truth, especially when it comes to college kids who coexist on a campus that seems to lack everything resembling a reality except for sex, drugs, alcohol, and the occasional frat party. Based on the Bret Easton Ellis novel of the same name, the movie is comprised of players who behave, react, detach and negate from the norm like they're part of some gigantic psychological tug-of-war against insanity, disoriented by their own conduct without actually realizing the personal obstacles they're usually up against until it's too late for them to be forgiven.

Tuck Everlasting / *1/2 (2002)

Someone with substantial power inside the executive offices at Disney must be suffering from some serious lack of quality control, otherwise live-action films like "Tuck Everlasting" wouldn't be pumped out by the studio on such a frequent basis. As of late, the same large-scale company that fancies itself the leader in motion picture entertainment for younger audiences has also been one of the most lazy, unleashing projects on us that try so hard to be cutesy and innocent with their viewers that they completely ignore all other potentials. Consider even recent mishaps like "The Princess Diaries" or "Snow Dogs"—how does such a widely-embraced distributor for children find itself saddled with such screen slop? If the animation department can recover from a slump as quickly as theirs, shouldn't that at least be expected of live action as well?

Monday, September 30, 2002

The Banger Sisters / **1/2 (2002)

The women in "The Banger Sisters" are being labeled as modern day versions of Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz by blurbs in promotional spots on television, but somehow I doubt that those two sitcom ladies would ever want to be associated with the bewildering stuff that we witness Susan Sarandon and Goldie Hawn resort to during the course of this awkward 97-minute sisterhood comedy. In their own warped realities, smoking joint after joint and staring at collections of photos featuring musician genitalia were merely common pastimes, but to those of us on the opposite side of the screen, such incidents almost have to be seen to be believed, especially when they involve actresses who are generally better known for more innocent things in their screen careers. That doesn't mean what they do is exactly crucial enough to tarnish the movie's credibility, but it does tend to make the experience a little too brazen for its own good.

Igby Goes Down / ***1/2 (2002)

The alienation of American youth knows no restrictions when it comes to someone like Jason Slocumb Jr. (Kieran Culkin), a 17-year-old boy who finds himself at the beginning of "Igby Goes Down" in the midst of a messy personal war fueled by family, society and culture, sometimes all in the same breath. What this adolescent but underestimated slacker faces on his trek towards individual freedom isn't necessarily anything out of the norm, but his own twisted interpretation makes it seem that way. Through his eyes, life is made up of countless losers who spend too much of their time pretending to be someone they aren't. Jason's goal (at least during the course of the picture) is simply to sit around and absorb the simplicities laid out at his disposal. The only complex details are the disagreements he faces with those around him, who tilt their heads like they understand his perspective, holding back the hard truths that would no doubt send him hurling obscenities at their seeming disapproval of his choices.

Sweet Home Alabama / **1/2 (2002)

It is often said that certain actors are able to elevate potentially-lethal movie material to a tolerable level simply based on their own screen presence. If that's indeed a true omen, then Reese Witherspoon must be exactly that kind of performer. The sweetness and charm that she exhibits through many of her roles is some of the most infectious since Audrey Hepburn's, even though the roles themselves are nothing to be proud of. When she shows up in the new "Sweet Home Alabama," we don't care about what happens to other characters or how the plot plays out. Good thing, too; minus the vivacious charm of its lead star, the movie would have easily been a waste of celluloid.

Friday, September 13, 2002

One Hour Photo / **** (2002)

The service of photographs in "One Hour Photo" is as fundamental to the premise as the red roses in Sam Mendes' "American Beauty," in which ordinary items that pass though our daily lives without much importance take on an identity of their own when they fall into the hands of someone outside of the norm. In writer/director Mark Romanek's feature film about a reclusive and mysterious anti-hero who works a retail chain's photo processing division like it were a lost art form, seemingly innocent little snapshots of everyday events are rescued from the clutches of passive American photographers and treated like rare precious gems, each signifying a moment in one's life that was crucial enough to garner a camera's focus. Why do people not see the beauty of each and every frame on a negative strip? Why do they place their development in the hands of complete strangers who care nothing about their content? Such questions are the everyday musings of Sy Parrish, a middle-aged nobody whose obsession with the printed images slowly begins to blur the lines separating lucidity from alienation. To him, pictures aren't simply forgotten treasures or abused artifacts, either; in fact, photos themselves become his only link to any feasible reality, even if the reality itself turns out to be somewhat disturbing.

Stealing Harvard / * (2002)

The plethora of jokes that find their way into the bowels of "Stealing Harvard" occupy the screen like early drafts of wisecracks featured in "There's Something About Mary" and "American Pie," tossing around the essence of bad taste without ever actually getting to a punch line. You are no doubt familiar with the concept of gross-out comedy and all its contingencies, but do you truly know the difference between that which is successful and that which is not? The audience of a recent promotional screening for the film certainly didn't, as they zealously chuckled through the 84-minute endeavor like undernourished preteens who hadn't seen a good comedy in years. Considering the frightening consistency of their laughs, it wouldn't surprise me in the least if that were true.

Friday, August 23, 2002

Possession / *** (2002)

Freudian theories, as demonstrated in Neil LaBute's "Possession," have altered modern romance perhaps more dramatically than society cares to imagine. No longer is the mere essence of love the single most important thing about relationships or commitments; people dictate their lives according to fears and insecurities, pulling away when the chemistry gets intense or the passion escalates beyond their expectations. Lovers analyze and nitpick on minute details, emphasize things that need not to be stressed, and look for excuses not to completely devote themselves to romantic obligations. No, love isn't the entire package anymore; it's a mere detail.

Simone / ***1/2 (2002)

The line that divides reality from fantasy is so shattered like a flimsy pane of glass in Andrew Niccol's "Simone," not even a child could mistake it for being authentic. Crossing boundaries and suspending the simplest morsels of logic in nearly every single frame, the movie tells the story of a big Hollywood director whose career is on the downswing until a young and unknown blond actress cast in the lead role of his latest film captures the hearts of millions. The catch? She's a digital illusion, manipulated via microphones and keyboard commands almost as easily as I'm typing this review, who looks so real on the screen that it's as if special effects have advanced literally overnight, allowing computer-generated thespians to come across without ever being questioned for legitimacy. Show me proof that this is all possible and I'll show you where to stuff it.

Friday, August 9, 2002

XXX / *** (2002)

If the summer action blockbusters are only as good as their lead stars, then the filmmakers of "XXX" are lucky that they have a man like Vin Diesel at their disposal. In a movie which asks the audience to believe that a man can swipe a senator's car and drive it off a bridge without dying, prevent a diner from being taken hostage, elude Colombian government enforcers who think he's a drug lord, and save the world from nuclear war in just under two hours (in movie time, of course), the actor has to be defined by a rather monstrous physique, otherwise the film's plausibility is overridden by unconvincing scenarios in which stunt doubles on wires pretend to look like they're pulling off dangerous tricks on a blue screen. Luckily, Diesel is a large, muscular, firm and foreboding screen presence, ideal for these kinds of physically demanding movies just as the Greeks were for the early athletics. It's nearly impossible to imagine anyone else filling the role as believably as he does.

Friday, August 2, 2002

Signs / ***1/2 (2002)

Theories about extraterrestrials have been used for entertainment as far back as movie cameras have been in operation, sometimes being so relentlessly exercised that the novelty of the concept quickly and easily becomes just another cliché in most modern motion picture circuits. In the literal dawn of mankind's space exploration, however, concern with movie formula is traditionally suspended because of the countless unanswered questions that continue to result from our uncertainty, and audiences continue to flock to the multiplex in search of new ideas and assumptions on the topic. As fascinating as it all may be, however, we still can't forget that movies are not always the most accurate reflections of reality, either; although there is much room to speculate on what exists beyond the Earth's atmosphere, especially in art, there is only so many times an idea can be twisted and reshaped before it begins to lose its elasticity.

Friday, July 26, 2002

Austin Powers in Goldmember / *** (2002)

There is a moment towards the beginning of "Austin Powers in Goldmember" when our unlikely British hero is being pursued by a helicopter down a stretch of desert highway, being shot at by fast air rifles. In the literal blink of an eye, he ejects himself from his vehicle, the appropriately named "Shaguar," and proceeds to flip behind the airborne enemy, where he shoots it until it explodes. The audience is baffled and disheartened by this seemingly serious battle sequence... until he turns around and reveals his true identity. The opening joke is so precious and rare that I won't dare reveal the punchline here. We've often been treated to this precious kinds of jokes throughout the series, but few times have they been so energetic and hilarious.

The Country Bears / *1/2 (2002)

If the childhood fantasy that animals can talk continues to inspire the moviemakers at Disney, then "The Country Bears" represents a very serious error in judgment. Most of us have delved into the possibilities of our wild neighbors having the intellect and characteristics of normal human beings, but seldom have we imagined them looking so ferocious or foreboding as they appear to be in this screen treatment. Based on the famous Country Bear Jamboree attraction at Walt Disney World, here is a movie all about concept and nothing about forethought; it walks and talks like an endearing fable, bankrupt of the realization that it can be creepy and unsettling on the eyes.

Pumpkin / * (2002)

If society was allowed to function the way that the characters in "Pumpkin" do, life would be a series of "Leave it to Beaver" reruns in which your identity was decided by how plastic and shallow you could be. With such thoroughly calculated ineptitude, the movie imbeds these traits into the film's players the instant they arrive on screen, saturating their psyches in all the familiar sitcom traits until they're too far gone to be saved. But this rather devastating property is only a small clue as to what horror the movie truly volunteers, and by the time the film reaches its final act, most of us are too limp from frustration to even care what happens next.

Stuart Little 2 / *** (2002)

There is immediate difficulty for people, like me, who go into "Stuart Little 2" without having seen so much as a frame of the first film (or for that matter, without having read a single line from the famous children's book by E.B. White, who also created "Charlotte's Web"). How do you approach the experience? What is required of those of us who have no foreknowledge whatsoever about the already-established subject matter we are confronted with? And furthermore, are we in an unfair position to judge a film on its merits when the foundation for the plot was anchored in an earlier movie that we have yet to see?

Friday, July 12, 2002

Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course / **1/2 (2002)

To have the kind of personality that is imbedded in Steve Irwin's psyche is to wrestle with death on a daily basis. The notorious and audacious "Crocodile Hunter," as he is known on his Animal Planet series, is the kind of spirited by troublesome guy that most of our parents warned us about when we were young: the seemingly insane individual who always acted on impulse but never thought about the potential consequences until it was too late. On a weekly basis, Irwin, along with his wife, descends perilously into the murky habitats of wildlife, exploring creatures and their characteristics so thoroughly and profusely that their own lives are sometimes placed on the line. His passion for nature is also a personal war, and though it's hard not to be charmed by the guy's crazy and sometimes hilarious methods, it's also hard not to wonder if he's ever suffered some kind of brain damage.

Road to Perdition / *** (2002)

There is something strangely amiss about Sam Mendes' "Road to Perdition" that prevents me from calling it one of the year's best films, and I'm not even sure what that one thing is. No, it's not the premise nor is it the resulting story that builds from it. No, it's not the casting or the acting. It certainly isn't the cinematography or film editing, either; in fact, those two elements are so plausible and effective here that it would be easy to justify the movie getting major Oscar nominations. The more I think about what so irked me about this interesting and well-crafted drama, the more it frustrates. In either case, it's obvious that when one sees this long-awaited vehicle starring Tom Hanks and Paul Newman, chances are they will admire what they see, even though they'll hardly be completely absorbed.

Reign of Fire / ** (2002)

There is a great concept lost somewhere inside the ruckus that is "Reign of Fire," struggling so hard to materialize that its level of energy dwindles before the first half hour is even finished. Sandwiched in a realm when interesting myth clashes with modern society to result in an apocalyptic future, the premise is as inspired and distinctive as those in summer blockbusters come, compelling and ironic and yet not too devious on the audience's intelligence. And yet with all that promise backing the setup, a wall of resistance is built that refuses to lead us to some kind of worthwhile payoff. The movie is cold, miscalculated and hollow, and aside from a few isolated scenes of genuine excitement, it's also rather dreary.

Monday, June 24, 2002

Strangers on a Train / **** (1951)

Bruno is the kind of guy who just can't take a hint. He persists like an obnoxious adolescent with undeniable charm, pouncing at seemingly perfect moments but failing to distinguish importance from irrelevance in most of his actions. When he takes those qualities with him aboard a train and meets up with a famed tennis player, he diligently swings things in his direction. He provokes conversation, milks information out of his victim, suggests wild and lurid ideas, and carefully acquires items that will keep him linked to the prey throughout the inevitable ordeal. Wild and crazy he may be, but stupid he is not.

Friday, June 21, 2002

Minority Report / ***1/2 (2002)

Steven Spielberg's "Minority Report" is a critical essay lurched underneath Hollywood tradition, a visionary and thought-provoking story that could have easily been one of the greatest pictures ever made had it not caved in to movie formula during the crucial final scenes. For a rock-solid two hours, the director of some of cinema's biggest masterpieces sends us headfirst into a nightmarish, unforgettable landscape that is clotted by elaborate technology, cutting edge law enforcement, elite government officials and fragmented personal identities. During that space of time, there is even a point when we ask ourselves if Spielberg has finally mastered a genre that he has so often tested himself in over the years (first with "E.T. - The Extra Terrestrial" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," later with "A.I. - Artificial Intelligence"). Those hopes, unfortunately, are blind-sighted when the film takes its last steps onto a familiar piece of moviemaking ground, which insists that completely explained endings in science fiction are better suited for audiences than ones which leave a lot of the details up to speculation. Literal translation: the filmmakers can't trust an audience with evidence, even when there's enough of it to support their own individual interpretations.

Monday, June 10, 2002

Science Fiction's greatest honored in the OFCS's first top 100 movies list

June 10, 2002

I have usually considered myself a less-than-cooperative participant in the past to vote-ins associated with lists like the "100 best or worst of the century," but when it came to my attention that the Online Film Critics Society, a gathering of more than a hundred professional (and influential) film critics which I happen to be part of, was putting together a list of the greatest Science Fiction movies ever made, something in the darkest corner of my mind jump-started an engine of enthusiasm. Each of us group members were asked to submit a list of our favorite 25 sci-fi endeavors, all of which would be tallied and combined to a final list of 100. A simple request like this might have easily gone over the head of a busy critic, but the society's governing committee persisted in getting everyone's contributions, sending out e-mail reminders at a pace that would only add weight to the importance of participation. For the society as a whole, everyone's involvement would have sent a message about how deeply everyone cared about the group they were affiliated with. But coming through on these requests was only partly about participating as a team; for some of us, like myself, it was more about the opportunity to connect with a specific division of cinema that is often the gateway for the biggest and brightest imaginations.

Friday, June 7, 2002

Summer 2002: A Look Ahead

June 7, 2002

The June-to-August period is usually the busiest of the year at the local multiplex, but long lines and sold-out showings began popping up in during the first weeks of May as studios decided to jump-start the season of movie blockbusters by unleashing their endeavors before anyone else had a chance to. This year, that theory expanded to include the last weeks of April as well—Universal's "The Scorpion King" triggered a new wave of enthusiasm at theaters that has only strengthened turnouts since. In fact, this last May was the biggest record-breaker on history; in addition to groundbreaking profits racked up by major blockbusters like "Spider-Man" and "Star Wars Episode II - Attack of the Clones," the month also saw the biggest overall turnout in history, in which the top ten films at the box office ranked in over $200 million a Friday-to-Sunday period, the most ever for one weekend.

Friday, May 31, 2002

Spider-Man / *** (2002)

"With great power comes great responsibility."
- Uncle Ben

Something has always baffled me about the notorious existence of the neighborhood hero Spider-Man, and until I saw Sam Raimi's movie adaptation of the popular comic book just this last week, I still wasn't quite sure what that was. As an observer in the past to the web-slinger's penchant to topple heroically off of high-rises and into the murky streets below, moving swiftly to protect innocents from foreboding shadows, I admittedly had as many high hopes going in to the experience as I did unresolved questions. The answer came to me shortly after the movie's hero made his obligatory transformation, but by the time the second act began to unfold, quibbles and speculations no longer mattered, because what I was seeing was not simply popcorn entertainment, but one of the most exhilarating (and silly) screen adventures ever to be inspired by the pages of a Marvel comic.

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones / ** (2002)

The name George Lucas has been imbedded in countless lists of the great film directors ever since his "Star Wars" franchise wowed audiences a whole generation ago, but now comes the fifth (or realistically, the second) installment into his famous series, "Attack of the Clones," a movie that might finally (and rightfully) call into question his authenticity as a serious filmmaker. Seldom in the past have we been invited in on such an obvious display of self-serving cinema, in which the director's influence is so apparent that he seems to suffocate the other members of his crew, who are fighting an uphill battle in trying to come across with a sense of identity. But there are no alternative angles for us to look at here; the movie is labored like it were a biblical code of conduct, with Lucas' thumbprint mercilessly smearing the canvas until it becomes too much to handle.

Friday, May 10, 2002

Unfaithful / *1/2 (2002)

"Unfaithful" opens with a seemingly ordinary suburb family preparing for a typical weekday, braving the harsh elements of weather and trying to get all they need to done before the day winds down to a close. But something begins to disrupt this pattern (almost imperatively) when Connie Sumner (Diane Lane) bumps into a handsome book dealer down in Soho during a gusty windstorm, injures her knee, and winds up cleaning the wounds in his apartment nearby. She is attracted to him, and it's obvious he returns the infatuation. And yet she's married, and even more important, to a man she loves (although there is little intimacy between them). Standing on a divide between taking risks and keeping with values, Connie finds herself trapped in a moral situation that can lead to several uncertain outcomes.

Friday, May 3, 2002

Jason X / * (2002)

"Evil Gets an Upgrade."
- Tagline for "Jason X"

We should have known that it would come to this. For nearly a full decade (and what seems like too short a time), one of Hollywood's most notorious killing machine creations, Jason Voorhees, has rested somewhere deep in the bowels of cinematic hell, retiring from slicing teenage throats and ripping guts open after nine installments into his never-ending "Friday the 13th" franchise (a promise, in fact, was made in the last picture's title, indicating that it was, indeed, the "Final Friday"). Now, just two short years into the new millennium, Mr. Hockey mask has returned to the fray, familiarizing himself with those old methods of mayhem in the new film "Jason X." Is this a surprise? Oh, not at all. The only real shocker, actually, is that mankind seems to be just as stupid and naive 400 years into the future as they were at Jason's old hunting grounds.

Friday, April 12, 2002

Frailty / **** (2002)

The laws of the serial killer movie have usually obeyed patterns much like those of the serial killers themselves, fitting a profile that is easily navigated by an audience but seldom too routine to come off as mundane. Think of this daunting task from the perspective of a federal agent; in the genre, he/she is responsible for piecing together a mystery in which the pieces are scattered in familiar ways, but always lead to less obvious outcomes. The same can almost always be said for the cinematic endeavor; movies in this vein open with the discovery of the killer's latest casualty, continue with scenes from the point of view of the murderer and/or victims, escalate into a cat-and-mouse mystery game, and ultimately end with unforeseen (but satisfying) jolts. Of course, not all films about these things can be called successful, but compared it to similar film genres and the result is not exactly a horrendous one, either.

Friday, April 5, 2002

Panic Room / ***1/2 (2002)

David Fincher is one of those directors whose cabalistic forte is an acquired taste for most audiences, and though that distinction makes him more susceptible to being separated from the consensus of Hollywood's greatest living filmmakers, few of his detractors can so easily admit to not having a slight interest in his newest endeavors.

That's the first notion that comes to mind with his latest film "Panic Room," a thriller that follows his consistently rocky road established by the likes of "Seven" and "Fight Club." We're fully aware of the tricky antics and eccentric techniques Fincher is capable of behind the camera, but it's hard not to be somewhat intrigued by the effort, even if it's just brief.

Friday, March 22, 2002

Blade II / *** (2002)

The audience owes a certain amount of respect to movie vampires, who were born in Hollywood's golden age and have managed to survive in a time when their essence has veered from original to routine. Few big-screen creatures can claim the distinction of persisting as long, and though we tend to dismiss the mighty bloodsuckers as walking clichés as of late, we still find ourselves embracing their existence, ignoring potential forewarnings in the often-misguided hopes that they can recapture their inventive potency.

We Were Soldiers / ** (2002)

As hard as it may seem, the big budget Hollywood war film is on an unfortunate fast track to becoming the latest casualty of overexposure, joining the ranks of gross-out comedies and teen slashers as a once-elusive idea that rapidly settles in as a cliché. What's most unsettling about this conclusion is the fact that unlike other genres suffering from overkill, the war movie is timely and valuable to our society as a whole, representing the immediate wounds inflicted by gut-wrenching battle that, in ways, can be more damaging than rewarding to the nations who engage in it. Countless major movie studios, alas, now only see the financial potential of ideas like this, and are undermining the essence of it all with endeavors watered down to a routine level.