Monday, May 30, 2005

Cinderella Man (****)

The previews for Cinderella Man appeared self-important and practically screamed, "Give me an Oscar." Having seen the film, I don't think the movie needs to ask for any Oscars. People are just going to give it some. This is a film that gives both "feel-good" movies and biopics a good name. It is expertly acted, directed, designed, and scripted. I think the strength of the film rests with the story. The life of James J. Braddock is one that I'm sure most people aren't entirely familiar with, but one that is definitely worth portraying on screen. The Great Depression is a period in American life ripe with amazing stories, and Braddock's struggle through it all adds emotion and resonance to his later successes in the ring. As played by Russell Crowe, who apparently can do just about anything, he is a strong and decent man fighting to keep his family together in the midst of overwhelming odds. You can practically feel the movie theater audience rooting for Braddock along with the characters on screen. Ron Howard achieves the seemingly impossible task of filming the boxing scenes in new and exciting ways. After Raging Bull, Rocky, and even the recent Million Dollar Baby, one would think the boxing genre was all washed up. Not if Cinderalla Man has anything to say about it. The script, co-written by A Beautiful Mind's Akiva Goldsman, has an excellent structure and should be used to teach people how to write screenplays. This movie should appeal to just about everyone, and will be a lock for some Oscar nominations come February. Excellent.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

The Longest Yard (**1/2)

Another in a long line of Hollywood remakes that probably never should have been remade. The Burt Reynolds original was an enjoyable enough sports flick, with a cool story and great lead performance. This remake stars Adam Sandler and Chris Rock, and though it's enjoyable and entertaining for the most part, it certainly isn't anything worth bragging about. The comedy is stale and one-note. Jokes that weren't funny the first time are endlessly repeated. Also, Chris Rock sucks as an actor. He should stick to stand-up. One can't help but imagine what Dave Chappelle would have done with a role like this, and some input in the script. The movie ends up feeling like it's been programmed and test marketed to appeal to as many people as possible. That helps explain why I ended up liking it in spite of my reservations, and yet found it unfulfilling. Like a can of Coke, this one's just empty calories.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Layer Cake (**)

Don't be fooled by the ads comparing this to enjoyable flicks like Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Although directed by Matthew Vaughn, the producer of those two films and the director of the upcoming third X-Men, it has all of the style but none of the humor. Instead, what we're treated to is another one of those London gangster flicks with tons of double-crosses, wacky character names, etc. The plot was a bit too convoluted for my tastes, and I never really got into it. Great use of music though: upbeat pop tunes often accompany violent on-screen beatings. I just wish it was all fresher...or funnier.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Mad Hot Ballroom (***)

This is a cute little documentary in the same vein as Spellbound. The movie follows the students at three different schools as they learn ballroom dancing as an extracurricular. Surprisingly, the dance classes help troubled students succeed in school and find guidance. If anything, the film shows that dance has the power to change lives. I enjoyed seeing the kids talk about the opposite sex, and it's fun to watch the kids cheer each other on when one of them does a particularly good dance move. You don't really have to see this one in the theater though. It'd make a nice midweek rental. Breezy entertainment, but nothing special.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (***)

This is going to be a difficult one to review. Lucas had such an impossible task ahead of him with this third film of the new trilogy. Due to his failures in Episodes I and II, he's left himself with the bulk of the interesting story to tell in under two and a half hours. On top of that, he has to satisfy all the fanboys who've been dreaming of and picturing the events in this film in their mind ever since they saw the original trilogy. Not everyone will be completely satisfied. Heck, I wasn't, but that doesn't diminish Lucas' achievement with this film.

Yes, okay. Lucas can't write dialogue. This is painfully obvious in any of the scenes between Anakin and Padme. Love stories and real human connections aren't his forte, I guess you could say. And yes, Anakin's conversion to the dark side is rather rushed, but that's because there was just too much damn story to tell. On one hand this is a problem becuase the viewer's left wanting a more satsifying and believable switch to the dark side. But on the other hand, the abundance of story means that this film freakin' moves. Unlike Episodes I and II, which were basically all filler, everything meaningful happens in this one. Once it starts, it never really lets up.

While I don't think Lucas achieved the "tearjerker" he wanted this film to be, I do think that it's kind of sad when Anakin becomes Lord Vader. All this time I've been wanting him to go bad, and yet, when the moment finally arrives, I found myself wanting him to stay good, to find it in himself to do the right thing.

If you're a Star Wars fan, you are bound to find something to love in here. From the opening rescue of Chancellor Palpatine, to Obi-Wan's lightsaber duel (of which there are lots of in this film) with the six-limbed General Grievous, to the Anakin-Obi-Wan fight to the finish amidst "liquid hot magma." I'm going to be coming back to this one time and time again. I think that Hayden Christensen gives a much better performance than he did in Episode II. Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan is always a delight. I thought Ian McDiarmid did a superb job as Palpatine, and in sneakily and expertly trying to seduce Anakin to the dark side. I love the lizard that Obi-Wan rides. I love the reveal of Darth Vader at the end. I love R2D2's unexpected acrobatics at the beginning. I love the Wookie planet (though I wish we'd gotten to see more of it). I love Yoda.

When it comes down to it, I think you have to rank the Star Wars films to get a good sense of where they stand. Time will of course tell, but for me, right now, it goes: Empire, New Hope, Sith, Jedi, Clones, Phantom Menace. While beating Clones and Phantom is no big deal, beating Return of the Jedi sure is. This film is dark, it moves fast, and it's visually amazing. It's not a perfect film, but then again, I don't think it ever could be given what was left to cover after Episodes I and II. I think those who don't like it are either too nitpicky, or are too caught up in their own expectations. For me, Episode III delivers the goods.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Monster-in-Law (*1/2)

Okay, first off any movie entitled Monster-in-Law stands no chance of being any good. Second, when is Jennifer Lopez going to stop playing these idealized versions of herself? Her character in this movie is so precocious and babyish. Why couldn't she have played someone with edge? Someone who could stand toe to toe with Jane Fonda? Granted, Fonda overacts greatly here, but I think that's because the script allows for nothing else. The script is the main problem here. There's a kernel of a good, relatable idea--the mother and daughter-in-law scheming against and doing harm to one another. But the movie doesn't do one interesting or original thing with that idea. It is content to just let the lame performances and story just sit there and flounder on screen like a fish out of water. The only comedic saving grace in the movie is Wanda Sykes, as Fonda's weary assistant. I can only guess that all of her (somewhat) funny lines were ad-libbed.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Kicking & Screaming (**)

Unfortunately, this one's no Anchorman. Will Ferrell is still funny though, and when he goes crazy midway through after drinking too much coffee, the film is at its best. He yells at kids, taunts them by calling them "fart face," pushes kids down, encourages his players to break the other team's clavicles, etc. The rest of the movie plays out like that Rick Moranis-Tom Arnold "classic" of yore, Little Giants. It's a nice family movie, and the soccer games are shot well by director Jesse Dylan (yep, Bob's son). The movie is funny at times and it is entertaining, but the feeling of been there-done that hangs over every scene. This one won't ruin Ferrell's rapidly rising star, but it certainly won't add anything to it. Kids may enjoy it though, and I guess that was the point.

Unleashed (**1/2)

Jet Li movies generally suck. There. I've gotten it out of the way. Aside from his villainous role in Lethal Weapon 4, I haven't been impressed with anything he's done since (although my friend Zach would disagree--he deemed 2001's Kiss of the Dragon the "kick ass movie of the summer." It wasn't). So I was happy to find that I actually enjoyed his latest in spots. Maybe it's because he stays silent for the most part. Or maybe it's the fact that the filmmakers have surrounded him with fine actors like Morgan Freeman and Bob Hoskins. Or maybe, and this is probable, it's the way he kicks the ass of everyone in range of him whenever that collar comes off. The beginning of the film is probably the best because it shows Li at full martial arts fury--his style of fighting is animalistic and intense. The movie then goes into redemption mode and moves away from the action. I like that it had higher ambitions, but those ambitions weren't high enough. Li's move from animal to human, from killing machine to family man is not as profound as it should be, and there's the distraction of a really annoying actress who plays the brace-faced stepdaughter of Freeman. Turns out, Unleashed, though decent, is not the kick ass movie of the summer either.

House of Wax (*)

Having viewed this film in what can only be described as the best possible state of mind, i.e., filthy, stinking drunk, I can honestly say, well, not much. It is what it appears to be. I knew going in that nothing would happen for about 2/3 of the film's 90 minute running time, and I was right. The movie is content with showing pseudo-Blair Witch camcorder footage of the "stars" gallivanting around in the outdoors for what feels like an eternity. Then a truck comes, and, boy, are its headlights "scary." When those crazy kids finally get to the ghost town with the house of wax, we learn that the house is literally made of wax. Brilliant! In a way, this is pretty clever because it allows for a visually cool action-packed finish where the whole house is melting around the survivors as they try and fend off the killers. But who cares really? All you want to know is: Does Paris Hilton die? I assure you yes. She is impaled through the head with a giant white stick after having scampered around in red underwear. It's the one time this movie actually delivers the goods.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Kingdom of Heaven (**)

What a disappointment. Ridley Scott directs with his usual flair for creating beautiful imagery and realistic, fully developed worlds, but that's all this movie has going for it. Orlando Bloom plays Balian, one of the most bland, uninteresting heroic leads in any recent epic to date. There is nothing to him. He's noble. He's decent. He'll put you to sleep. The story is a muddled mess. I didn't know much about the Crusades going into the movie, and I think I know even less coming out of it. Characters come and go without giving the viewer any real sense of who they are, what they stand for, and what they want. Is Jeremy Irons good or bad? Who knows? Further, what was Ridley thinking when he signed on to direct this film? Troy, for all its faults, was entertaining at least and featured a great rivalry between Pitt's Achilles and Bana's Hector. Even Alexander, one of the most bloated and problematic films of last year, was better. Kingdom's biggest weakness? It is boring. Beware of the ads promoting this as the next Gladiator. I hear Ridley has a director's cut that's an hour longer. While I'm sure it adds depth to the characters and avoids some of the choppy editing on display here, I can't possibly imagine trying to sit through this thing again.

Jiminy Glick in Lalawood (**)

It is mighty difficult to turn a comedic skit character into the star of his own feature length movie. Many Saturday Night Live characters have tried and failed in the past. Jiminy Glick is no exception. Now, I love Martin Short as Jiminy Glick. When the show was on Comedy Central, I thought it was just about the funniest thing on television. He so inhabits the role and is ridiculously crazy and brilliant at improvisation. When the movie resembles the television show, as in lengthy celebrity interviews with Steve Martin and Kurt Russell, it's great. But it stops the rest of the movie dead in its tracks. That's not such a bad thing, considering the rest of the movie is a weird attempt to make a David Lynch-style murder mystery with Jiminy as the central character. Ambitious and definitely not mainstream, but it doesn't work. Fans of Jiminy may want to check it out, but everyone else should avoid.

Crash (***1/2)

Powerful stuff. Written and directed by the Oscar-nominated writer of Million Dollar Baby, Crash is an incisive, heated, and very human drama dealing with race and racism in America. The script bristles with hard-edged truth and three-dimensional characterizations, and is as tightly plotted as a movie can get. It reminded me a lot of Magnolia and Traffic in the way it expertly weaves and ties together different characters and stories. The cast is one of the most diverse of its kind: blacks, whites, asians, persians, and latinos all figure prominently. Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, and Sandra Bullock all do stellar work, as does everyone else. This is one of the best films of its kind. Challenging, entertaining, and unforgettable.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Palindromes (**1/2)

Director Todd Solondz's films are not for everyone. He, for some reason or another, has a fascination/fixation with child molestors and pedophiles. Having said that, his latest film is one that sticks with you. It follows the character of Aviva, a teenage girl who more than anything else wants to get pregnant because then she'll always have someone to love. Aviva is played by eight different actresses throughout the course of the movie. On screen, this plays less annoying than it sounds. Solondz's sense of humor, on full display here, is dry and morbid, and definitely odd. There is a scene where a bunch of kids, with physical and/or mental abnormalities, dance and sing a Christian pop tune about Jesus. It is choreographed, and they even wear the little head mics. Part of me wanted to laugh, the other part wanted to cringe. You may feel the same. The themes in this movie are heavy: abortion, religion, identity in America. While I give Solondz credit for tackling them, I didn't come away from the movie quite knowing what he wanted to say exactly. An interesting and entertaining, yet ultimately flawed independent film.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Kung Fu Hustle (***1/2)

Kung Fu Hustle is many things. It is a rip-roaring action flick, a highly stylized and absurd comedy, a gangster pic, and a live action Looney Tunes cartoon. Its director and star, Stephen Chow, is, in my humble opinion, the best Asian import since Chinese food. His first film to cross over to the U.S., Shaolin Soccer, was a funny and winning little sports/kung fu comedy. With Kung Fu Hustle, Chow has stepped up his game and taken on a more ambititious effort. This movie pulses with the pure, unadulterated joy of putting on a show. The action is absurd, the characters exaggerated, and the storytelling frantic, but the viewer is left grinning ear to ear the entire time. Great entertainment, in the best sense of the word.