Friday, April 16, 2004

The Punisher / ***1/2 (2004)

The renewed popularity of comic book screen adaptations illustrates a promising new turnaround for the standards of cinematic blockbusters, in which conflicted heroes and multifaceted villains become primary driving forces behind substance instead of ambitious visuals that exists purely for the sake of assaulting the senses. The concept alone is an accessible one for filmmakers because comics already come prepackaged with the essentials: extensive back story, thorough character exposition, personal and moral conflicts, and landscapes that bring even the most zealous action into a relevant context. If there sometimes lies a problem in this approach, however, it's that an already-established backbone can sometimes encourage directors and writers to forget about the padding and go straight to the big explosions or the dramatic confrontations, which creates a severe sense of detachment as a result. Granted, even though some of the more cartoonish translations have still resulted in still-respectable results (consider Ang Lee's "Hulk," for instance), it takes real gusto and nerve for someone to abandon nearly all sense of adrenaline and simply concentrate on the material they are given. There lies the real virtue in watching such famous stories pop out at you on the big screen.

Kill Bill, Vol. 2 / **** (2004)

The first sight we see in "Kill Bill, Vol. 2" is Uma Thurman's the Bride gazing at the camera as she speeds down a highway, her eyes fierce with anger and her decisiveness firm. Reflecting back on the occurrences that have brought her to this point, she recalls the old "roaring and rampaging" movies about revenge from the 1970s, relating them specifically to her recent activities. "I roared," she insists. "I rampaged," she insists even more. "And when I arrive at my destination," she admits with a slight twinge in her voice, "I am going to kill Bill!" So goes the opening moments of a grand finale to the saga that began just six months before, in a movie with such a stellar quirkiness and skill in its energetic conviction that it was unlike anything we had ever seen up to that point (and indeed, it deserved its rank on my top ten list of 2003 as the #1 film of the year).

Friday, April 9, 2004

The Alamo / * (2004)

John Lee Hancock's "The Alamo" is less like a movie and more like a detached concept, 135-minutes of speed and adrenaline in which loud explosions, gunfire, personal sacrifice and the occasional long-winded speech are all stacked up to create the impression that a lot of crucial things are happening on screen when they actually aren't. What this ultimately results in is an experience that is barely worth the ink that is printed on the ticket stub. Aside from the fact that the film has no tact, shows no enthusiasm for its subject and forgets about every element of narrative at every possible interval, it lulls the viewer into this paralyzing state of madness where theater seats almost become cages. It doesn't help matters, either, that the endeavor itself is stretched much farther than the source material requires it to be. As friend and colleague Bonnie Crawford perfectly noted on the way out of a recent evening screening, "did it really take that long for the Alamo to fall?"

Games People Play: New York / ** (2004)

It's easy to write off the whole reality television fad because of its grotesque overexposure, but peeling away the immense hype reveals a concept that, for better or worse, is strong enough to serve as the center of inspiration for countless generations of imitators. The idea only seems exhausting because our networks have commercialized and exploited it beyond comprehension. Consider, for instance, the callousness of a show like "Fear Factor" or the dehumanizing tone found in a "Joe Millionaire"; why these shows have both failed and succeeded has nothing to do with the reality shell and everything to do with their content, because their material, no matter how broad, is still subject to the same criticism and/or praise that the substance of a traditional sitcom or television drama might endure. Besides, if the perception itself really did lack the required relevance that most of its critics suggest, would it have lasted this long?