Friday, June 29, 2007


I like Michael Moore the filmmaker and respect him as a political advocate, but man can he get on my nerves! Though I have enjoyed may of Moore’s films the one complaint I always come away disappointed with how he forces himself into the story and tends to showoff for the camera with crazy publicity stunts he forces into each film. Sicko is no exception to that rule, though for the first time in a long time Moore takes on an important issue without clear-cut “heroes” and “villains” on either side of the political landscape. The United States, he shows us, is one where Americans are guaranteed the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness, just not always the right to live. Though he paints a dark view of the insurance industry, they aren’t the real villains in the film. The villains, and the victims, it seems are both the American people who tolerate the broken healthcare system because for so long they’ve been sold a bill of goods that there’s nothing better available and have been made so fearful of the government they don’t dare demand something better. Well, for those people especially, here’s a look at how healthcare systems are flourishing in other countries and the devastating effect of America’s poor healthcare on its citizens.

The documentary is straightforward as Moore establishes his premise of examining the healthcare industry and spends the film showcasing those who are left behind, either to lack of health insurance or to the insurance companies which cover them refusing coverage for necessary, and possibly life-saving, treatment for their medical conditions.

For me the most interesting parts of the film are the travels to other countries including Canada, England, France, and Cuba and examining how the healthcare systems in those countries work.

One of the biggest lies ever told in the history of this country is that socialized medicine could never work and that government run healthcare would be too expensive and less reliable that privatized healthcare. Moore’s documentary proves this to be a bald-faced lie as he looks at the creation of the insurance industry and the reasoning behind it, and presents a refreshing realization that there may indeed be a better way.

One of the most intriguing moments is when Moore sits down for dinner with a group of Americans living and working in Paris. Together they discuss the ease and high-level of medical care and wellness and sick prevention given to them by their companies. It seems so implausible given the American system it will leave many Americans stunned. Along with the sobering realization that Americans, due to its current broken system, are falling further and further behind in terms of health and life expectancy. We’re getting sicker and dying as others are flourishing under systems deemed too expensive and impractical, and politicians still tout our healthcare system? That takes some kind of nerve, or a great deal of stupidity.

Moore does stumble once or twice while trying to showboat by rounding up a large group of Americans in need of healthcare, all ignored by their own insurance companies for treatment they have paid premiums for, and renting boats to take them to Guantanamo Bay. Why Guantanamo you ask? Well, it seems the worst terrorists in the world get better healthcare than any average American citizen can ever hope to achieve, no matter the policy. While it makes a good point, Moore, as he is often prone to do it these stunts, goes too far in showboating for the camera. Thankfully it is one of the few moments where it occurs. By comparison, taking a small group into a Cuban hospital to get the care they need is a remarkable and touching scene that shows both the level of competence and training in their doctors, but also the need and responsibility to help those who are sick which seems to be missing in many US hospitals. Compared to the horror stories Moore relays from many thousands of Americans, including 9/11 workers denied benefits for years, it will leave you ashamed.

In a world where Republicans shout “No Child Left Behind” we are leaving millions of Americans, many who are children, at a terrible disadvantage by refusing them the proper medical treatment they need, and would receive in other countries. Could socialized medicine work it this country? Yes, though it would mean paying taxes which many are reluctant to do. However, imagine the alternative of sending the money you currently spend on your health insurance directly to taxes, and then when you need medical care getting anything and everything you need free of charge. No charge for the hospital stay. No charge for aspirin or medication, no charge for test or surgery. No charge for an emergency room visit or a ride in an ambulance. No hassle of bargaining or threatening an insurance agency who refuses or balks to pay for treatment. No hassle, just walk in, get the medical care you need and walk out. So simple; it’s hard to believe we aren’t willing to give it a try.

Government run healthcare works in many developed countries around the world and their citizens are healthier and with longer life expectancies than current Americans. The truth is that Americans have a guaranteed right not only to liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but also to life and until they are willing to fight for the right to adequate health resources that citizens from other countries are given simply by paying taxes rather than putting our faith into an insurance industry that wants to bleed us dry and kill us without ever putting up money for expensive procedures, we will be a sick country for a long time.


“This is your brain on anime.”

Scientists have created a new experimental dream machine which allows therapists to enter a person’s dreams in an attempt to help them with their problems from inside their own mind. When several of the machines are stolen, however, everyone who has ever used the machine becomes susceptible to its influence, whether asleep or awake, and the walls between reality and dreams break down.

Attempting to retreive the device and stop the criminal are a beautiful scientist (Megumi Hayashibara) who lives as ‘Paprika” a sort of guide and savior for those trying to understand and overcome their fears and doubts in their dreams, and a cop (Akio Otsuka) who is haunted by dreams of a recent case.

The film is a more straightforward mystery than many anime films, which is probably why I enjoyed more than most. In the final act however as the walls between reality and dreams breakdown it marches proudly into crazywackofuntown as the higher ideas and discussions of the film are lost in unleashed chaos.

The ideas of invading one’s dreams and then having the ability to inflict others with the fevered dreams and nightmaes of strangers is a terrific hook for the film. A dream machine might be a wonderful thing, but, as shown here, in the hands of the wrong person it could a terrible weapon. The film succeeds as a sci-fi film and as mystery, and although I got a little bored when the story started to drag as the craziness took over in the final third of the film, it comes together in a satisfactory ending. It is not a must-see, but for fans of something different and more thought-provoking than the usual summer fare you might want to invite Paprika into your dreams.

Thursday, June 28, 2007


The late great film critic Gene Siskel had a simple standard he held all films to when he judged whether or not they were worth seeing. He would simply ask himself, “Is this film more or less interesting than watching the same people (the actors in the film) eat dinner?” Well, according to that criteria, and others, Evening is a real letdown.

The untold story of Ann Grant (Claire Danes) is told to us through a series of flashbacks to the 1950’s and a fateful weekend which changed her life forever. Balanced against the past events is the present where a much older Ann (Vanessa Redgrave) is dying and being cared for by her two daughters, the responsible married mother Constance (Natasha Richardson) and the spirited screw-up Nina (Toni Collette). The pair seem to only agree on one thing, that they don’t agree.

The balance of the film is odd, as much of the middle of the film is one long flashback ignoring the life and death struggle of Ann, and the individual struggles of her daughters. The whole set-up seems strange as we are allowed to view Ann’s past, but her daughters are not. Ann doesn’t tell them the story of her life; she only dreams it in her drug induced state. Also troubling is the drama unfolding in the present, which finally comes to fruition in the films closing moments, is much more interesting than any of the flashbacks.

This film feels like a book which was adapted by someone unwilling to accept the necessary changes in the format. The story may work well in the original novel by Susan Minot, but comes off here unfocused and more than a tad boring on screen.

Even with these problems there are several nice performances, mostly by the women in the cast including Danes, Collette, Regrave, and Mamie Gummer. Glenn Close and Meryl Streep also stop by in what are little more than cameos with little to no impact on the main plot of the film. One huge casting fault is to cast a pair of leading men in Patrick Wilson and Hugh Dancy who are about as exciting as watching paint dry. No, paint drying would be a party to these guys. Nor do either fit their roles particularily well, though the each give a respectable performance. Dancy, as the madcap alcoholic, provides some cheap laughs but is impossible to take seriously, and nothing about Wilson’s character gives us any clue to why the women find him so charming or desirable.

A final note about the script which calls for Danes’ character to be a nightclub singer. Danes’ has a nice enough voice, but hardly one that would generate the oohs and ahhs she receives when performing or would allow her to make a career out of doing so. The flashbacks are meant to imply she was a good singer who never made it because of her life’s tragedies, but due to Danes limited singing ability it comes off quite differently.

Evening isn’t a bad film, and I have no doubt that there will be many who will look past its obvious flaws and enjoy the movie for the strong female performances and the overall style and look at the film. I appreciate both, but no film this drab and boring, no matter how well dressed or performed, is one I can recommend. Although I enjoyed moments in the film, mostly in the final twenty-five minutes, overall I was left with a sense of disappointment and regret that the film couldn’t find a way to engage me in any real way.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Evan Almighty

“Genesis 6:14: Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch.” Now I don’t know exactly what that means, but boy doesn’t that sound like the stuff to make an insanely expensive summer blockbuster comedy? Um…

As the film opens Evan Baxter (Steve Carrell) leaves the newsroom and moves his family (Lauren Graham, Johnny Simmons, Graham Phillips, Jimmy Bennett) to Washington to begin his new career as a freshman Congressman. With a new house and a new job things are looking good for Evan. Except that God (Morgan Freeman) shows up and commands Evan to make him an ark. Despite Evan’s steadfast refusal God won’t take no for answer and puts the poor Congressman through hell until he accepts his responsibility, even at the cost of his job, his dignity, and his family. Evan’s appearance is altered, his hair and beard begin to grow, his clothes disappear, and animals, in pairs, begin to be attracted to his presence. Finally, with no other recourse, Evan gives in and accepts the responsibility of building the ark.

Overall the performances are good. Carrell makes a likable leading man, as he proved in The 40 Year-Old Virgin, and spends most of the time getting shit on (more on that later) by God’s odd sense of humor. As the heart of the film he serves a purpose of giving us someone to both root for and care about.

John Michael Higgins, Jonah Hill, and Wanda Sykes have small and inconseqential roles as Evan’s Congressional staff as their characters are given only enough screen time to make a short one-liners and then disappear for large stretches of time. John Goodman does what he can with the thinly written baddie politician of the piece. And Molly Shannon shows up, I’m assuming, just to annoy me.

And I can do without the animal crap-humor! Jeesh! I know Hollywood loves crap jokes, but please learn to control yourselves. There are at least four different such jokes in the film. Birds defecating on someone is mildly amusing, but it’s hardly hilarious (and it becomes less, not more, amusing each time it happens). When you get right down to it that’s the central problem with the film. It will keep your interest and make you chuckle and you’ll have a good time, but there are no big laughs, no real memorable moments, and nothing to discuss with your friends afterwards (certainly no Man-o-Lantern in this one!).

And somebody explain the title to me please. In the first film Jim Carrey becomes omnipotent, a God, aka almighty, and that’s where the title comes from. Here God just makes Carrell build a big wooden boat and tortures him when he refuses. I don’t know about you but that doesn’t sound very “almighty” to me. Did no one in marketing catch this? This might seem a small complaint, but it is emblamatic of one of the problems with the film - going for the cheap or easy joke like the crap jokes or the beard jokes, which are just a little too reminiscent of The Santa Clause for me, rather than thinking each problem through and crafting something more original.

One scene the film does have going for it is God’s explanation to Evan’s wife (Graham) of “God’s mysterious ways.” Rarely, in film or real life, have I heard a better explanation and the scene provides a nice moment for Graham who otherwise is left trying to act confused, sad, bewildered and angry (all at the same time) about what is happening to her husband. There are few such moments in the film that make it worth seeing, but if the entire film had been handled with the same care this might have been a truly miraculous film rather than just a flood of crap-jokes and one-liners.

For what amounts to the most expensive comedy ever made ($175,000,000) the film is a slight disappointment. There are many laughs with some good bits throughout, and a couple of touching moments, but much like Bruce Almighty the film fails to inspire the big laughs that seem to be just around the corner. Still, it’s an enjoyable little summer comedy that should entertain you, at least for awhile.

Day Watch (Dnevnoy dozor)

Day Watch picks up a year after the events of Night Watch. We are given a rushed narration to explain the events of the first film and the rather incomplete outline of this world. There are two opposing forces, armies of Light and Dark, who are known as the Others. Centuries ago they battled until an uneasy truce was made. Now these psychics, shape-shifters, and vampires live in a world trying to keep the necessary balance intact, though one man has decided it is time for war.

Anton (Konstantin Khabensky) and his new trainee Svetlana (Mariya Poroshina) , who is destined to be the Great Other for the side of Light, encounter a Dark Other killing a human in public. Tracking him down Anton discovers it is his son Yegor (Dima Martynov) and prevents Svetlana from killing him. Anton then tries to hide the evidence of his son’s involvement which only puts himself in danger as the Dark Others accuse Anton of murder and the world tips on the edge of war.

The film contains large armies that don’t really do much. The vampires don’t eat people, there are no werewolves, and the shape-shifting we see is mostly disappointing. Also parts of the film aren’t well explained. What is “the gloom” and how does one enter and exit from it? Who are these judges to decide the fate of Anton? The Light Others can prove Anton did not kill the girl, but they refuse, why? And though the idea of the mysterious Chalk of Fate is intriguing, its existence is never properly dealt with.

In terms of an action film the movie has many stunts and special effects which come off quite well. The fact that it shot in Russia also adds something to the Gothic feel of the film. But the film is laughingly bad at trying to capture the seductive and erotic tones of vampire films. The audience was rolling their eyes and guffawing during these “intimate” moments.

As a horror film or a suspense film Day Watch fails on many levels. As an average summer popcorn action flick, with better than average acting, the film is a modest success. I don’t think anyone will be wowed by the action scenes or the special effects, though they are professionally done, or come away blown away from the experience. What Day Watch proves is that other countries can create convoluted big budget action films, that when you get right down to it don’t make a lot of sense, just as well as Hollywood can.

There’s a look and feel to the film which I enjoyed. And except for the moments of unintentional laughter the tone holds up well. If the world had been a little better fleshed-out and described to the audience it would have helped immensely. Still, with the issues I have with the film I am recommending it, though I would suggest renting the first film before trying to figure this one out. Although isn’t as good as I hoped, it does do a much better job with it’s material than similar recent American vampire films such as the forgettable Van Helsing and the supremely awful Underworld Evolution (read that review).

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

DOA: Dead or Alive

We’ve seen martial arts tournament flicks many times before. Hell, Jean-Claude Van Damme made a career off them. DOA isn’t a great film, in fact in many ways it’s quiet laughable and absurd, but it is an enjoyable experience that knows exactly what it and doesn’t try to be anything more.

Fighters all over the world are sent invitations to DOA, a secret martial arts competition on a hidden island. The contestants include Tina (Jamie Pressly) a wrestler wanting to prove herself, her father (Kevin Nash, in what is a thinly veiled Hulk Hogan/Brooke Hogan relationship), Christie (Holly Valance) an assassin and thief and her partner Max (Matthew Marsden), Princess Kasumi (Devon Aoki) and her loyal friend Hayate (Collin Chou), and the host and daughter of the founder Helena Douglas (Sarah Carter).

There are also subplots about Kasumi’s missing brother (Kane Kosugi) and an assassin (Natassia Malthe) sent to kill her for leaving her people, a nerd (Steve Howey) with a crush on Helena, and the secret evil plan of the man behind the competition (Eric Roberts). But hey, you don’t come to a movie like this for plot. And, thankfully, the film realizes this and keeps the action and titillation in overdrive.

So what do you get, you ask? Bikinis? Check. Lingere? Check? Lesbian tease scenes? Check. Slow motion? Check? Gratuatious butt shots? Check. Spontaneous volleyball scene? Check. Wet naked woman in a towel? Check. Training montage? Check. Fantasty scene? Check. Computer nerd with a crush? Check. Wet t-shirts? Check. Evil mastermind with a secret plot? Check. Sword fights? Check. Martial arts chick fights? Check. Highwire stunt work? Check.

The film has few surprises, other than being more enjoyable than it has any right to be. The action scenes are mostly well shot, and there’s certainly enough titillation to keep the target audience of young horny boys engaged for it’s 87 minute running time.

I wanted to hate this movie, but I just couldn’t. I won’t defend it, it’s not very good, but I will say it has an enjoyable quality. The film understands what it is and doesn’t try to be more than mindless summer entertainment. In a year with more than a few big-budget letdowns trying too hard to be important, here’s a film that just wants you to enjoy yourself. Is it plausible? Hell no, but somehow it finds the right amount of cheesiness and chick fights to be passable, and even, at times, enjoyable. I can’t quite bring myself to recommend it, but for the right audience, and you know who you are, you may find the guilty pleasure you are looking for.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

I love the Silver Surfer, I mean I LOVE him! He is, by far, my favorite Marvel Comics hero (though not my favorite Marvel character). When news broke that the team that created the suckfest known, at least by me, as Craptastic Four was getting a chance to ruin this character as well I started stocking up on ammunition. The film is far from the total desaster I imagined, and in truth the makers have made some great strides from the first film (this one is actually watchable without raising my blood pressure to dangerous levels). I guess I could give it a pass just on improvement and effort, but although it’s not craptastic, like its predecessor, it’s far from fantastic.

Things pick up some months (years?) after the last movie. Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) and Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) are preparing to marry, Johnny (Chris Evans) is still a media-whore, and Ben (Michael Chiklis) is still made of what appears to be orange spray-painted foam. To be fair, the look of the Thing is an improvement from the last film (they must have spent at least $50 on his costume this time), but what is up with Jessica Alba’s eyes? Is she a scientist who can turn invisible or some weird alien creature?

Anyway, things are good for the group until an unusual visitor who likes creating huge holes in the planet’s crust, and whose cosmic radiation starts disrupting the powers of our heroes, shows up. General Hager (Andre Braugher) enlists the help of the group and their arch-nemesis Victor von Doom (Julian McMahan), because all US military are stupidly gullible, to stop the Silver Surfer (Doug Jones/Laurence Fishburne) who has foretold the destruction of the planet in eight days time.

The look of the film is much better than the first one. To begin with we get a good credit sequence and some cool exploding planets. Not only did they spend some money this time around, but they spent it in the right places. Aside from the improved look of the Thing, the Baxter Building gets a much-needed make-over and the Fantasticar is pretty darn cool.

As for the Surfer, his look is impressive if not quite right. He’s not the T-1000! And though the look of him melting his way through solid objects looks cool it is never explained, nor does it make much sense. Why does he bother when he could just fly around or blast his way through much more easily? The whole concept is pretty dumb, as is the simplistic plan to render him powerless. The movie can never quite decide just how powerful to make the character, as the script calls for him to be near indestructible at times and downright puny at others.

And the character gets so few lines you wonder why they bothered having Fishburne come in to add his voice. This is a mixed blessing. Though it limits the amount of damage Tim Story and his group can do to the character it also leaves the Surfer, and Galactus (don’t even get me started there!!), as largely unanswered mysteries. By keeping him silent you loose many of the best aspects of his character including his compassion and intellect. The simplistic version of the Sue Storm/Surfer relationship, necessary given the time constraints of this 91 minute film, also leaves something to be desired.

There are a few other problems as well. Most of these can be attributed to the sequel being stuck with the same bad casting from the previous film, though at least the actors seem a bit more comfortable in their roles this time. Still, this is very limiting. When you build a house on such a shaky foundation, you are bound to have problems.

Although I still don’t get the title, what exactly is the “rise” of the Silver Surfer? Is he picking up the franchise, or trying to get a rise out of critics? I just don’t know. Still, it’s an improvement over the first film, and since they don’t totally ruin the character I guess I can call off those hitmen now (kidding!). In creating a not-to-bad film that manages to entertain as much as it screws-up, it suceeds in a very limited way. I think this is as far as this group can go, and if any high-quality work is to come from these characters serious changes, both in front and behind the camera, need to be made. Although I can’t actually go far enough to recommend the film I won’t warn you off as I did the original. For a mindless summer flick with some good action sequences the film delivers on a basic level, and is just good enough for me to stop referring to this franchise as craptastic. At least that’s something.

Nancy Drew

I never really read Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys. I was more a Three Investigators fan as a kid (hint, Hollywood, hint). Still, I like a good mystery and never had a problem with the concept of children solving mysteries better than adults. The latest film version of Nancy Drew gets herself into a jam or two, but manages to pull through with style. Good for her!

Nancy Drew (Emma Roberts) is the greatest detective in her home town of River Heights. Even the local chief of police (Cliff Benis) relies on her insight and ability to solve crimes. The trouble is she’s only a teenager and her father (Tate Donovan) wants her to stop her sleuthing before she gets into more trouble than she can handle.

Nancy journeys to Los Angeles with her father and makes s promise to act more normal and give up her mysteries. Unknown to her father, however, Nancy has chosen to stay in the former home of a famous actresss (Laura Harring), who was mysteriously killed, and attempt to crack the unsolved case.

In L.A. Nancy makes a new friend (Josh Fitter) gets harassed by some uppity girls (Daniella Monet, Kelly Vitz), and tries to act normal. The trouble is Nancy isn’t normal and soon with the help of a friend from back home (Max Thieriot) and her new freinds in L.A. Nancy is on the case trying to solve the murder of the famous actress.

Nancy Drew has been around a long time and many fans of the series were displeased with the casting of Roberts in the title role. She does a good job balancing Nancy’s natural talent and small town values against the backdrop of L.A. She comes off as a smart and quite capable young lady. I like how the film champions Nancy and her abilities, and slowly wins over people by showing what she can accomplish with only her curiosity and her brain.

My one major complaint with the film is the fish-out-of-water plot device. My favorite scenes of the film come early when the characters are in their natural setting of River Heights (where the cheese drips right off the screen). While I don’t mind the film choosing to put Nancy in L.A., the average naive girl gets picked on by big city girls plotline is overused and not all that engaging. Nor does it seem plausible that the smart girl in the other scenes would be so gullible here. However once the film moves past these stumbling blocks and gets on with the mystery things pick up nicely.

The movie isn’t perfect, and I would have preferred the action to take place in River Heights, but the story is cute, clever, and full of a light-hearted campy fun that fans of all ages can enjoy. Here are the beginnings of what could become a nice little series if the studio would be so inclined. Although I wouldn’t wait for a next entry with eager anticipation, the idea of another Nancy Drew film sounds better to me than most proposed sequels.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Fantastic Four

Sometimes you go to movies with low expectations and are pleasantly surprised because the movie is better than you expected. This is not that film. I walked out of Fantastic Four with a strange sense of bewilderment that no one tried to stop this train wreck from being shown. Didn’t anyone on set see how bad this was? Did no one at the studio level watch dailies or by watching them did they see their careers end and decided they’d rather jump off the top of Fox headquarters than bring this up with the brass? I would have thought someone at Marvel or 20th Century Fox would have had the good sense to burn every last reel of this turkey. Even if you had to burn the entire building to the ground, it would still be a better solution than unleashing this thing on an unsuspecting public. It is almost impossible to describe how bad this film is, but I have a mission to make sure as few people’s lives are ruined as possible, so I will do my best.

Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) along with his best friend Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) talk old friend billionaire Victor Van Doom (Julian McMahon) into funding a project on Doom’s space station involving examining how cosmic rays effect basic DNA. Along for the ride are Reed’s former girlfriend Susan Storm (Jessica Alba) and her brother Johnny Storm (Chris Evans). Something, of course goes wrong. Somehow the cosmic storm arrives not in seven hours but in seven minutes (maybe someone forgot to move a decimal point) and all five are exposed to the cosmic rays that start to alter their genetic structure when they wake up back on Earth. Once back home Reed finds his body has become rubberized and he can stretch and bend his body into all types of shapes and so becomes Mr. Fantastic. Sue finds she can disappear and create invisible force fields thus becoming the Invisible Girl. Johnny discovers he can create fire, in fact even envelope his entire body in flame declaring himself to be the Human Torch. Poor Ben Grimm’s body has been changed into orange rock, and he becomes an even more lumbering oaf as the Thing.

Doom is also transformed by the rays as his body starts to become metallic and he finds he can control electricity, thus making him Magneto, Master of…..oops I meant, Electro….oh, no sorry. He’s Doctor Doom! Kind of. The rest of the movie involves Reed trying to undue the process, Johnny enjoying his celebrity, Ben agonizing over his, Sue taking her clothes off, and Dr. Doom deciding to kill all of them, because….um…..he’s the villain?

The movie is beset with several flaws, inconsistencies, unbelievable coincidences, poor editing and incoherent plot divergences, and a complete lack of anything like common sense. For example the cosmic rays show up over six hours early because….well, I’m still not sure, since it’s not explained. Since they couldn’t figure out a way for their powers to work on the clothes they wear they actually have them wearing the costumes when they are hit with the radiation on the station. Despite the fact the rays only effect DNA, somehow the suits each get the powers of the owner too. Characters make unbelievable statements or decisions simply because it’s in the script. The scenes involving the Thing and the Human Torch aren’t too bad, but Ben’s scenes with anyone else defy any sort of logic including the scenes dealing with his wife and Alicia Masters in the bar. Each scene involves the women doing something that is totally implausible. Also it seems his strength and invulnerability change from scene to scene depending on the writing. The light speed change of heart for the police to the Thing who actually caused a thirty car accident, and the rest of the group, is just mind boggling. One minute they are all under arrest and the next they are the Ghostbusters complete with full media coverage and a motorcade.

Another problem seems to be they can’t decide how big New York is supposed to be. Several times during the movie something occurs and then another character instantly shows up just in time for the next scene. It’s like they were out for a walk and since the set is only about two blocks wide they just happened to get by all the crowds or the carnage to be exactly where they need to be for the camera to pan to them. These coincidences aren’t only effecting the characters, but also props. For instance when Sue opens a random drawer in a room that no one has been using she finds a photo album with pictures of Reed and her in love. Then there’s the mask that Victor was given as an award and he just happens to have on his desk in a glass case that just happens to fit him perfectly.

So what about the nuts and bolts of the movie? Not much better I’m afraid. The special effects involving the powers of the Torch are well done, but the look of the Thing is just sad (and I won’t even get started on Dr. Doom). The invisibility comes off well, but Sue seems to get the feel of her powers much too quickly especially, a problem with pretty much every character but especially bad here because her powers seem so much more complex than simply stretching or hitting things hard. The powers of Mr. Fantastic are intriguing but aside from one or two short scenes aren’t really explored. Part of the problem is the movie is oddly edited so you are never really sure how much time has passed between scenes, and in some cases scenes are left and then arbitrarily returned to after totally unrelated scenes involving the same characters. It seems that the makers of this monstrosity decided early on that this was a comic book movie and so they didn’t really have to take it seriously or do much actual work. I’d like to discuss the acting or directing, but as I found little positive evidence of either I’ll just move on.

So, what worked? Not much. The Human Torch and Thing relationship is pretty reflective of the relationship from the comic book. The Baxter Building is recreated okay, but is the top is oddly shaped from the outside with many windows that are necessary only because the plot calls for later events to be seen across the city. And there is a nice cameo for Stan Lee. That’s about it, and believe me it was hard to find that much good to say about this pile of donkey paddies. What’s even more sad is a sequel has already been approved, possibly with the inclusion of the Silver Surfer, so in two years we’ll be forced to watch FF2: Still Craptastic. Joy.

More than once I wondered if this was in fact a a junior high school student’s film project. I disliked this movie to such an extent that I considered finding a copy of Superman III to watch to feel better about comic book movies. I’ve created more impressive things sitting on my toilet, and spent more time in one sitting then all the research that was done for this film by everyone involved. If there is any justice then Jack Kirby’s ghost will haunt these people for the rest of their lives. While I realize not every movie Marvel makes will be Spider-Man 2, I was hoping for at least some competency in basic filmmaking to be demonstrated. It’s been years since I have seen a movie that was so ineptly made, especially a big budget movie such as this. I honestly wonder if everyone working on this film got hit with some kind of cosmic ray that made them all completely crazy, drunk or stoned. I’d prefer that explanation than the more obvious one that no one seemed to care about putting a quality product that adequately reflected the source material to screen. There is no real cohesive plot or motivation for most of the characters or to help tie the film together. Everything just sort of happens, almost all of it bad. It’s hard to believe a movie with this much backing and hype missed the mark so badly.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Veronica Mars - Season One

"Veronica Mars, she's a marshmallow."

Last year I started noticing reviews with phrases like “smartest teen-oriented drama since Freaks and Geeks” (Variety),. “has all the sass, strength, resolve and ingenuity of any of literature’s classic detectives” (Hollywood Reporter), “teen noir with a moody blend of adolescent angst, family drama and mystery” (TV Guide), and “imagine one of those hard-boiled detective movies with Lauren Bacall doing the sleuthing instead of Humphrey Bogart” (USA Today). They were describing a new show on the UPN network that centered around a 21st Century Nancy Drew named Veronica Mars. So I decided to check it out and got hooked. What I discovered, and what somehow still remains the best kept secret on television - Veronica Mars rocks! The first season is finally out on DVD so I decided to check it out and watch the entire first season from the beginning.

Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) used to be in the cool crowd, that was before her boyfriend Duncan Kane (Teddy Dunn) dumped her, her best friend Lily Kane (Amanda Seyfried) was murdered, and her father Sheriff Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni) was fired for trying to implicate the immensely powerful Kane family in the crime. Veronica now ostracized, walks the halls of Neptune High as an outsider who lives by a simple rule “get mad, and get even.” Her father has moved into private investigation and Veronica helps from time to time.

At school Veronica offers her detective services to students for a price. She will solve you average high school crimes like who kidnapped the school mascot, just who is part of the secret society known as the Tritons, who’s been kidnapping the dogs of wealthy students, and how the school elections were tampered with. Sound familiar, well let’s just say not all of her cases are so run of the mill.

Aside from uncovering the truth about Lily’s murder, finding her mother and the truth behind her disappearance, and discovering what really happened the night of Shelly Pomeroy’s party, Veronica will also poke her nose into cases ranging from blackmail, murder, suicide, a serial killer, rape, school bomb threats, incest, the worst game of strip poker ever. Not your typical Nancy Drew, but then nothing about Veronica Mars is.

Kristen Bell is terrific as the young strongly independent sleuth who although wise beyond her years is still lonely and susceptible to the mistakes all teenagers make. Her close circle of friends includes her Watson, Wallace Fennel (Percy Daggs III) who is the requisite best friend and support, and the computer expert Mac (Tina Majorino) who has her own mystery for Veronica to solve.

The supporting cast is quite good. I especially like Coltantoni and the father daughter relationship and banter the two so easily fall into. Also good are the gang leader Weevel (Francis Capra), Michael Muhney as the rather dimwitted but political hobnobbing new sheriff, and Jason Dohring as Logan Echolls who has one of the best recurring jokes of the series - watch for it.

Great guest performances here with some familiar faces. Rounding out the Echolls family tree are Harry Hamblin, Lisa Rinna, and Alyson Hannigan. Pretty damn good casting job! Paula Marshall and Joey Lauren Adams are terrific in guest roles and part of the faculty of Neptune High.

Aside from the 20 minutes of extended and deleted scenes and a slightly longer intro version of the pilot we get ‘nada folks. Also the set-up of box set is a little tricky in that if you want Disc Two you have to remove Disc One first, and so on.

Night Passage

Robert B. Parker is best known for his Spenser novels about a wiseass Boston P.I. which became a network show and then a series of television movies with Robert Urich and later Joe Mantegna. A few years ago Parker started deviating from his Spenser and broadened into characters and new worlds. One such world involves police officer Jesse Stone in the small New England vacation town called Paradise.

As the movie opens Los Angeles homicide detective Jesse Stone (Tom Selleck) is drunk and on his way out of town. He’s wife has been sleeping with another man, and he’s been kicked off the force for drinking on duty. He heads cross-country with his dog for a new job as police chief of Paradise, Massachusetts. Despite being drunk and hung-over at the interview he gets the job and slowly realizes why the town leader Hasty (Saul Rubinek) wants a slush for a police chief. Stone sobers up and goes to work on solving the murder of the last police chief (Mike Starr) and stopping the money laundering scheme involving Hasty and Joe Genest (Stephen Baldwin).

More of a character study than a mystery the movie takes a look at Stone as a shattered but not completely broken man still in love with the woman he has left behind and unwilling or unable to truly move on. Selleck is well cast in the role that allows him the full range of emotion over the course of the film.

The supporting cast includes Polly Shannon as a potential love interest, and Viola Davis and Kohl Sudduth as small town police officers. Starr is perfect as the aging police chief forced out after twenty years that meets a bitter end and any movie where Stephen Baldwin gets kicked in the crotch gets thumbs up in my book.

The movie is a fair representation of Parker’s novel with a few changes but his style works well in this type of format. Stone is more serious and straight-laced and although he doesn’t have Spenser’s charm he has a depth and vulnerability that works well on screen. This is the second movie Selleck has starred in and produced as Jesse Stone with at least one more to come. Hopefully Parker will keep writing and we’ll get many more adventures of Jesse Stone in Paradise.

A few years ago Selleck stepped away from the big budget Hollywood parts he was getting in some really bad movies (anyone remember Her Alibi?) and moved into producing and starring in smaller but much better made films, mostly for television. Jesse Stone is a good character for Selleck and opens new doors and stories for him to tell and hopefully we’ll get quite a few more.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Ocean's Thirteen

The disappointing string of early summer popcorn flicks ends here. Ocean’s Thirteen shines through; I know it’s early June, but so far, Ocean’s Thirteen is the best film of the early summer season.

The first two films of the series centered around love stories. Danny (George Clooney) winning back Tess (Julia Roberts) and Rusty (Brad Pitt) reconnecting with his old love (Catherine Zeta Jones). Without the two actresses the film moves solely into a guy’s movie. This is a film about friendship, loyalty, and revenge. As Danny himself says early on Tess and Isabel don’t belong, it’s not their fight. And it’s true.

The film opens, with some odd flashbacks and flashforwards, telling the tale how Reuben (Elliot Gould) was duped by a business partner (Al Pacino) and lost his partnership in a new casino. The gang all return to Las Vegas to Reuben’s bedside committed to ruining the grand opening of the casino and bringing down the man that hurt their friend.

The film is a mix of the first two films. There’s one big score and plenty of planning like Ocean’s Eleven (read the review). And there are also the more humorous and off-beat moments that made Ocean’s Twelve (read the review) such a joy.

Everything you enjoyed from the first two films is back including Danny and Rusty’s personal dialogues, Linus’s (Matt Damon) need to be more involved, the technical expertise of Livingstone (Eddie Jemison) and Roman (Eddie Izzard), the mechanical engineering of Basher (Don Cheadle), the stunts of Yen (Shaobo Qin), and the bickering of Turk (Scott Caan) and Virgil (Casey Afflleck).

This far into a series you might expect these bits to get old, yet director Steven Soderbergh and writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien come up with a way to make everything feel fresh and new but still familiar and enjoyable. And it’s just so damn cool!

Added to this formula are Al Pacino as a terrific new villain and Ellen Barkin as his assistant. I was uncertain of Barkin’s casting going in, but the scenes between her and Damon are terrific. And her character’s inclusion provides one of the film’s funniest moments when Linus tries to explain “cougars” to the group and asks for the responsibility of seducing her.

The only negative I can come up with about the film is the opening segments which are a little confusing with flashforwards and flashbacks trying to set-up the plot of the film. It’s just a bit too fragmented. Once these are over, however, the film kicks into high gear and never looks back.

The film personifies cool in every frame. This is why I go to big budget summer flicks, and sit through countless turkeys, to be engaged and enthralled and have one hell of a good time. Fans who didn’t like Ocean’s Twelve should feel more at home, but those who enjoyed both previous films are in for a real treat as it blends the best qualities of both films and gives us a sequel worth watching.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Surf's Up

Surfing penguins you ask? Yeah, I’ll admit the idea is a bit outside the box. Maybe that’s what I like about it. Surf’s Up isn’t a great animated film, but it’s a darn good one that, when it’s not too busy getting in its own way, provides a good story arc, memorable characters and some terrific animation.

Cody Maverick (Shia LaBeouf) wants only one thing out of life, to become a surfer like his hero the famous Z. Cody leaves the cool confines of Antarctica to travel with a promoter (James Woods) and his assistant (Mario Cantone) to enter the Penguin World Surfing Championship.

There he meets a other competetors including Chicken Joe (Jon Heder), the nine-time defending champion Tank Evans (Diedrich Bader) the lovely lifeguard Lani (Zooey Deschanel) and her anti-social friend Geek (Jeff Bridges doing a pretty funny penguin version of the Dude) who hides out from the rest of the world in his shack up in the hills (don’t worry, he’s not a penguin unabomber).

The story isn’t anything new, but the choice of filming it as a documentary is a gutsy call. The entire film is presented with these characters speaking to and in front of the camera. It turns out to work wonderfully and gives the film a quite different feel from you average animated flick.

Where it gets into trouble, however, is when it cow-tows to the more base audience. The film is filled with cheap poop/fart humor that seems shoved in at random to get the young kiddies to laugh. I honestly wonder if the studio though the film was too smart for kids and demanded more cheap laughs. Although these don’t ruin the film, and many younger kids might like them, they do begin to wear on the older members of the audience.

Where the film succeeds is when it pushes the envelope and tries to create something new in a mockumentary approach to the fully realized world of competitive penguin surfing. The characters are well fleshed-out and the story, though predictable, is quite enjoyable - except when the film lowers itself for cheap jokes that mostly fall flat. It’s not the best animated film, but it does have a unique style and, in my opinion, is a superior film to last year’s Happy Feet (read the review). I guess I would rather see penguins surf than dance.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Happy Feet

Happy Feet is a very average animated film with some brilliant animation. Robin Williams does his thing, everyone learns an important lesson, and the world keeps on a spinin.’

Penguins mate by singing, if this animated tale is to be believed. A penguin looks deep in his or her heart and finds the heartsong which will be sung and will attract a mate. Two of the most musical penguins Memphis (Hugh Jackman) and Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman) come together in just such a moment.

Their son however is a disappointment. Mumble (Elijah Wood) can’t sing, and has this odd habit of tapping his feet, and dancing to a beat that only he can hear. He is in love with the lovely Gloria (Brittany Murphy) but without being able to sing a lick, he can’t win her heart or find a place in his world.

Outcast, Mumble befriends a small group of smaller penguins (Johnny A. Sanchez, Lombardo Boyar, Jeff Garcia, and Robin Williams) who appreciate his toe-tapping and befriend him. Together with his new friends Mumble sets out to discover the reason for the fish shortage and comes face-to-face with a strange new alien creature - Man.

The animation is outstanding and top notch. The only animated film that’s looked better all year is Pixar’s Cars, (read my review) which is now available on DVD. The detail in the stark Antarctic, and the creatures themselves, is breath-taking. Too bad the story doesn’t keep up with it.

The ugly duckling story is nothing new as the outcast returns as the hero and finds the love and respect he should have had all along. It’s been done many times before, and the film doesn’t really add anything new to the tale. Also, many children,and more than a few adults, may find the pace of the film mind-shatteringly slow at times.

It’s a great film to look at, but the story meanders and although there’s a nice moral at the end about excepting people with differences, it doesn’t come off as well as it should. Still it will entertain for most of it’s 98 minute running time for older elementary school kids.

A final note for parents: At the screening I sat next to a 4 year-old girl and her parents. Within 20 minutes she was bored out of her skull and began begging her parents to leave, which of course they didn’t leaving all of us to “enjoy” the film and her incessant nagging for the rest of the film. Moral, keep the younger ones at home for this one.