Monday, July 31, 2006

Miami Vice (*1/2)

Every director is entitled to at least one major misstep in their career. For my money, this is Michael Mann's. Mann previously directed Heat, The Insider, Collateral, and The Last of the Mohicans. All are great movies. But with Miami Vice, he's lost his magic touch. I think the movie turned me off from the start. Both Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx are exceptional actors, but here, they're stranded in a muddled mess of a plot with nothing but glowers on their faces. See the poster on the left? That's how they look the whole movie. No emotion. Nothing. It's almost like Bad Boys redone with dead seriousness and none of the action or humor. But perhaps most egregious of all is the romantic subplot between Farrell's Crockett, and Gong Li's character. I don't know if you're familiar with Gong Li, but she's a famous Chinese actress who apparently can't speak a lick of understandable English. She's horrible, and whenever she's on screen, the movie is interminably bad. And they devote a whole hour to this romantic subplot. Foxx isn't on the screen at this time, and the movie switches locales from Miami to Havana. Why call the movie Miami Vice in the first place then? This film version has almost nothing to do with the original tv show. It's as if Mann was so concerned with distancing himself from the show, that he ended up distancing the audience from any connection with his film. A missed opportunity from one of America's better directors.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Lady in the Water (*)

With The Sixth Sense, M. Night caught everyone by surprise and delivered one hell of a late summer hat trick. He topped himself with Unbreakable, which remains on of my favorite movies of all time. I found myself defending Signs more often than I'd care to admit against detractors who seemingly hated it. M. Night lost me a bit with The Village, but I still found that to be an interesting misfire. Lady in the Water is just a misfire. M. Night's strongest suit used to be his storytelling, but you wouldn't know that from Lady. This is jumbled, lazy, "first draft" screenwriting that reeks of self-importance and self-congratulation. It's a dumb story filled with dumb characters (Paul Giamatti's performance, aside) and it has no reason being a movie that people pay money to go see. If I must say something good about Lady, I thought James Newton Howard's score was lush and beautiful and really elevated the movie at times. Although I admire anything original coming out of Hollywood, if this is what we're going to get, I say: bring on The Pink Panther 2!

Monster House (***)

Monster House is executive produced by Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, and that pretty much tells you what you need to know going in. Unlike most "children's" movies of late, this is a smart throwback to the movies I loved as a kid growing up in the '80s. Most of these movies were also executive produced by Spielberg and/or Zemeckis, and if movies like The Goonies, Explorers, and The 'Burbs stir up fond memories, then by all means, check out Monster House. It may not look like much from the previews, but it really is good fun. The kids in it are real kids, and even though the motion capture process is the same as that used in The Polar Express, the animators are not trying to make things so realistic and can instead focus on important little things like character and story. I really enjoyed Maggie Gyllenhaal's voice work as the babysitter, and Steve Buscemi was also quite good as the scary-mysterious old man across the street. Check it out.

Clerks II (***)

What could have been a cheap attempt to cash in on past glory actually turns out to be one of the better sequels I've seen. After Clerks II and Before Sunset, I think that one way to make a really great sequel is to wait some ten plus years between installments. Clerks II works because it actually has something to say and it can take its characters in new directions. You don't just work convenience stores for ten years and stay the same. Dante and Randal are at a crossroads in their lives and Smith explores the comedic possibilities. He also brings back Jay and Silent Bob, something he had apparently sworn off when he made Jersey Girl, but after that disappointed, he came back to them. And thank goodness. Jay is a comic force to be reckoned with in this movie. His Silence of the Lambs impersonation of Buffalo Bill is priceless. There are a lot of crude jokes in the movie, but Smith can get away with them because he's got a good heart and is well intentioned. I really liked it.

A Scanner Darkly (**)

Sometimes you just have to admit that you don't "get" a movie when you watch it. I know it's difficult and you don't want to seem like an idiot, but that may explain why you didn't like it. I mean, A Scanner Darkly is obviously well constructed, it's interesting and complex, and the acting's good. It's based on a Phillip K. Dick story and directed by Richard Linklater. Pedigree all around. But I wasn't impressed. I wanted to like it, but I just didn't "get" it. And that's okay. It happens. I think that the story is too confusing for its own good, and the animation strikes a weird balance between cool and annoying. I hated Linklater's other film with rotoscoping, Waking Life. That film was all talk, no action, and A Scanner Darkly verges on becoming a dangerously boring talkfest at times as well.

You, Me and Dupree (**1/2)

If you're a fan of Owen Wilson, there is much fun to be had with You, Me and Dupree. It's sort of a return to the improvisational, make something out of nothing work he did in the Shanghai Noon movies. The movie works when he's on screen. But again, that's only if you find Owen Wilson funny. If you don't, avoid this movie. It's pretty lame otherwise. Matt Dillon is majorly miscast in the role of Richard Dreyfuss. Sorry, but this is essentially a What About Bob retread. I would have preferred a straight man with more comedic chops. I know it's been done before, but I would have gone with Ben Stiller instead--somebody who could do a really funny slow burn, which is what's required here. Kate Hudson is likeable (she always is) but she doesn't have much to do. And Michael Douglas gives a "What the..." performance as Hudson's father and Dillon's boss. Check any expectations at the door, and you might get a chuckle or two out of this one.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (**)

The newest Pirates film boasts a title that's about as long as it's running time. People always complain about the length of films, but the truth is: if it's a good film, it doesn't matter how long you're sitting there. Dead Man's Chest is not a good film. In fact, it just barely passes muster as a mediocre film. And that's a real shame too. I liked the first Pirates a lot. I loved Johnny Depp, and probably loved the fact that he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Captain Jack Sparrow even more. When the original film came out back in July 2003, it was a breath of fresh air in a summer chock full of remakes and sequels. And now here we are three years later, and Pirates has spawned its own exhausting sequel. Gore Verbinski and Jerry Bruckheimer are back behind the camera (as director and producer, respectively) and this is a gorgeous-looking movie. The production values are top notch and it's obvious that every dollar spent is shown up there on screen. The special effects are amazing as well, particularly the character of Davy Jones. He's an amazing mix of CG, make-up, and Bill Nighy's spectacular character work. I was captivated everytime he was on screen, just trying to figure out how the filmmakers pulled it off. And there is a great island escape scene toward the beginning of the film, where Cap'n Jack is turned into a human shish kabob. In fact, I was really enjoying the movie up through that point, but boy, does it go downhill from there. The story of Dead Man's Chest is erratic and unfocused. There's a bit too much going on, and it's going on really slow. I kept looking at the screen, begging--no, praying--that the movie would do something interesting, but it never does. There's a big fight scene at the end on a giant rolling wheel, but there's no drama, no danger. Depp and Orlando Bloom's Will Turner are having a three-way fight with the original film's Davenport, but we don't really care. We know these three characters aren't really going to do anything to each other, so why have them fight? The movie ends on a cliffhanger, setting up part 3, which was filmed at the same time as this one. I want to say it leaves you wanting to see the third film right away, and if the movie had done it right, we all would have. As it is, Dead Man's Chest is just punishingly long at 2 hours and 40 minutes. Any enthusiasm you had about the Pirates franchise has been pummelled out of you by the end of this one. Yo Ho? Yo Ho Hum.

Nacho Libre (**)

Nacho Libre, as the ads no doubt proclaim, is from the director of Napoleon Dynamite. And like that film, Nacho Libre boasts a lot of style and singular comedic moments. Where they differ, however, is in their central characters. Whereas Napoleon could sustain an entire movie on the strength of its title character, Nacho can barely make it through a half-hour. Nacho is a thin conceit of a character, and as played by the reliably overactive Jack Black in a silly Spanish accent, he can't really carry a full-length film on his shoulders. As the movie goes on, Black comes in and out of character, and by the end, he's singing and scatting like he's in Tenacious D. There are also a number of completely unnecessary (and random) fart noises inserted throughout that dumb down the whole thing. You may laugh once or twice at some of the jokes in Nacho Libre, but you won't feel good about yourself for doing so. It's almost as if you're willing yourself to laugh just to get your money's worth. In fact, the movie plays like a poor man's Wes Anderson flick. I hate to say it (because it's become too much of a cliche by now, unfortunately), but if you've seen the preview, you've seen all the good parts.

The Devil Wears Prada (***)

Every summer there's usually a surprise small film that manages to succeed with both critics and audiences despite little hype and promotional blitz. The Devil Wears Prada is just that kind of movie. Based on the best-selling book, the movie adaptation's strongest suit is its cast. Anne Hathaway is immensely likeable in the lead role, and Meryl Streep is, as usual, her excellent self. But for my money, Stanley Tucci walked away with the movie. He was given all of the best lines, and had the most interesting character arc. Less strong is the movie's plot: we've seen this story told time and time again. There are no surprises here, and there are times when the movie seems to teeter on the edge of chick flick hell, but it somehow manages to escape all the traps and come out unscathed. The Devil Wears Prada is entertaining fluff. In baseball terms, it's a standing double of a movie: it's not trying to hit the ball out of the park, but it's certainly a safe bet.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Superman Returns (**1/2)

Let me begin by saying how great it was to see The Man of Steel back on the big screen again. It's been too long. I've been waiting for a new Superman movie since 1997 when I first heard that Tim Burton and Nicolas Cage were going to do one. Needless to say, I had high hopes for this new one.

Let's start with the good: (1) this is a faithful "sequel" to the original Superman and Superman II. Bryan Singer and company are right to forget about parts III and IV. The world that Richard Donner created in the original film is lovingly recreated and homaged in Returns. Marlon Brando is used effectively, and John Ottman does a great job of incorporating John Williams' iconic themes into his own score. There's a great sense of fun in the first half of the movie that is refreshing. (2) Brandon Routh. I thought he was fantastic as Superman. He certainly looks the part, and he's got a great cadence to his voice. His work as Clark Kent was a bit more subtle than Christopher Reeve's, but he wasn't nearly as funny and he didn't do as good a job in creating the contrast between Clark and Superman. Here, it was pretty obvious to everyone but the characters on screen that Clark is Superman. (3) The special effects. The original Superman's tagline was: You'll believe a man can fly. Well, you certainly will with this new one as well. The digital effects are seamless. Superman really is faster than a speeding bullet. (4) The crime-fighting montage. After a superb plane crash rescue scene, there's a great montage of Superman back in action. At one point, he stops a bullet with his eyeball. Cool. (5) James Marsden as Richard White. Great character, who's heroic in his own right, and the love triangle between him and Lois and Supes (and Clark) is the most interesting part of the film.

Now the bad: (1) Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane. She's way too young for the role, especially given the fact that she has a five-year old kid in the movie. She's pretty one-note throughout, and lacks the comedic chops of other Lois Lanes. (2) The kid. SPOILER ALERT!!!!!! Stop reading now if you don't want to know anything else. Remember how this is a sequel to Superman II. Well, in that film, Lois and Superman slept together. In this film, Superman's been gone for five years. Lois has a five-year old son. Hmm. You do the math. The idea of Superman fathering a child is a good one, but it's an idea better left to the last film in the series. I imagine Warner Bros. is going to one put out at least two more sequels. Now they have this super-powered kid to deal with. The filmmakers have kind of shot themselves in the foot with this story idea. Too much, too soon. (3) The plot. Okay, so Kevin Spacey works as Lex. He's sadistic and funny, and when push comes to shove, he doesn't waste any words when taking down Superman and stabbing him with kryptonite. That being said, his plan for world domination: bury the U.S. in water, and create his own continent using Krypton crystals, is just lame. The land he creates (which he calls beachfront property) is nothing more than a bunch of sharp, spiky rocks. It's not fun to look at, which works against the film, since the last forty minutes or so are set entirely in and around these rocks.

All in all, I liked it, but had problems with it. At 2.5 hours, it's also a tad too long. On a side note, we saw this in Imax 3-D, which was not all that spectacular. You don't get to wear your glasses much, and it's distracting and takes you out of the film to keep taking them on and off. Just see this in a regular theater, and save yourself the five extra bucks.