Thursday, August 31, 2006


Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Starring: Kurt Russell, Josh Lucas, Richard Dreyfuss, Jacinda Barrett, Emmy Rossum
Running Time: 99 min.
Rating: PG-13

*** (out of ****)

When it was announced they'd be remaking 1972's The Poseidon Adventure I actually didn't think it was the worst possible idea in the world. While the original was campy, memorable fun it was far from a masterpiece. In fact, part of me wonders if the only reason we're so protective of the film is just because it evokes a goofy feeling of 70's nostalgia. The clothes, the unintentionally hilarious soundtrack, the performances. Ah yes, who can forget the performances? Shelly Winters as the rotund former swimming champion who sacrafices her life and Gene Hackman screaming at God as he plunges into a watery inferno. Let's not forget Ernest Borgnine overacting in, well, just about every scene. It was fun, but anyone who thinks it represents a pinnacle in filmmaking has some explaining to do. But since it was the original disaster movie it's no surprise everyone holds it dear to their hearts. However, I was curious what advanced special effects and a new vision of the story would look like.

My hopes were raised when I heard Wolfgang Petersen was directing the remake since he has experience with water-logged action films such as Das Boot and The Perfect Storm. If anyone was the man for the job it was him. This may not be as fun as the original, but it at least has it beat technically. This is a remake to its core and exactly how you'd expect The Poseidon Adventure to look and feel like if it was made in 2006. Poseidon does exactly what it sets out to do. It's a disaster movie and that's all it needs to be. Nothing more, nothing less.

The film wisely scraps all of the characters from the original film and creates new ones. Not as if it matters in a movie like this since the characters are only there to be involved in gargantuan action scenes. This time there's gambling addict Dylan Johns (Lucas), former fire chief and Mayor of New York, Robert Ramsey (Russell), his daughter Jennifer (Rossum) with boyfriend Christian (Mike Vogel) and a single mother (Barrett) and her son (Jimmy Bennett) . Plus we have stowaway, Elena (Mia Maestro) and suicidal gay architect Richard Nelson (Richard Dreyfuss) who's about to jump ship because his partner left him. The fact that Dreyfuss' character is gay is completely superfulous to the story as if they had to find some character trait to stick on him. To his credit, he makes the most of his part and looks like he's having alot of fun. I've never met a gay architect but I bet if I did he'd act something like Dreyfuss does here. He even gets to to deliver the movie's most unintentionally ridiculous line stating "I'm an architect and these ships aren't designed to stay afloat upside down." You learn something new every day.
The rest of the passengers on the ship? They all die when a "rogue wave" hits and they make the unfortunate mistake of listening to the captain (Andre Braugher) and staying in the ballroom instead of following the others to the top (bottom) of the ship. On the plus side, Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas bites the dust.

Amazingly this movie is off and running within the first fifteen minutes, a far cry from the original. In fact it moves at such a break neck pace you almost wish it would stop for air at times. Where the original film was funny and adventurous, this one is tension-filled. Although it's hard to take a film too seriously that features a villainous character named "Lucky Larry." Think he survives past the twenty minute mark? Still, there are some genuinely suspenseful scenes such as a trip through an air vent that's way too close for comfort and one of the most realistic drowning scenes I've ever seen. I never cared much for the ending of The Poseidon Adventure, because I felt it didn't really end. It just stopped. The ending here is only slightly better, but this type of film isn't going to be remembered for it's narrative stylings so it isn't a major issue.

Like the original, there's a huge death scene involving a major character, which I thought was actually better executed in this film. Not to give anything away, this person had more at stake and, as a result, made a greater sacrifice, deepening the impact of the death. I appreciated the effort (however small) that went into establishing the relationships between the characters, especially Ramsey's overprotectiveness of his daughter and his disapproval of her relationship with the boyfriend. It's a stock storyline, but it was played well by all parties involved. I also liked that there were two leaders (Lucas and Russell) this time around instead of just one (Hackman) in the original. It created a new, interesting dynamic for the story seeing two strong-willed personalities attempt to work together.

A movie like this isn't going to be strong on character development and it isn't, but anyone who thinks the original did a much better job at it is fooling themselves. The acting is fine all around but if I had one complaint it would be that it almost moved too quickly and could have used ten more minutes at the beginning or end. If you loved the original, this remake will do nothing to taint or disgrace your memory of it. They can stand side by side as a different take on a similar story. If you go into Poseidon approaching it for what it is, you definitely won't be disappointed.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Inside Man

Director: Spike Lee
Starring: Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe

Running Time: 129 min.

Rating: R

*** (out of ****)

Spike Lee's Inside Man is a good thriller that could have been great if not for a big surprise that doesn't deliver and an overlong ending in which the movie congratulates itself for a briliant heist. Actually, considering the talent involved, this should have been much, much better. The movie does, however, feature commanding performances from Washington and Owen plus one neat trick never used (at least as far as I've seen) in a heist caper that ends up being the movie's saving grace.

Clive Owen plays Dalton Russell, who has concocted a master plan for robbing Case Bank in Manhattan. He's gathered a group of four masked men dressed as painters and they'll lock down the bank, taking hostages. The big catch is once the they're in, they'll dress all the hostages just like them so the authorities don't have a chance of ever capturing them. Detective Keith Frazier (Washington) is in charge of the hostage negotiations and we are intermittedly shown clips throughout the movie of him and his partner Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) interrogating all the hostages in the bank when it's over, attempting to discover which of them were part of the master plot. This would be fantastic, except for the fact they make it very clear early who those people are, draining the film of suspense.

Meanwhile, the founder of Case Bank (Christopher Plummer in basically the same villianous role he plays in every movie) has very important interests laying in a safe deposit box inside that must to be protected. In other words, he's hiding a "huge secret." To protect it he calls in Madeliene White (Jodie Foster, great as ever) as his personal fixer. Of course she clashes with Frazier. I'll give you a wild guess if Frazier is eventually taken off the case. If not for the jarring, nauseating camera work you would never know this is a Spike Lee movie. No serious social commentary or big issues here, which I think is a relief for a change.

Lee seems to be aiming to make his own Dog Day Afternoon (that movie's even blatantly mentioned in the film), but this doesn't come anywhere close to reaching those heights. Part of the problem is that the hostages act like complete morons disobeying their crooks left and right so it's hard to feel much sympathy for any of them. Then there's the mystery of the safe deposit box and screenwriter Russell Gewirtz really traps himself in a hole with this one. With all the hype, what's ever inside better live up to it. Needless to say, it doesn't. I think it would have been wiser to not reveal the contents at all, like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction.

As for the ending, there was a perfect point to close, but Lee continues on needlessly, making sure we understand every detail of the plan even though it's plainly obvious. He's also hell bent on making sure we know Detective Frazier "knows what's going on" and he's "going to do what's right." Thanks. I got it. The movie also spends a ridiculous amount of time in the final minutes exploring the possible consequences of Plumer's character's secret being exposed, which was far more interesting to the filmakers than me.

You may be wonder why I'm even recommending this movie and giving it three stars. Well, for one, Washington is excellent as usual when given a role where he's in charge and this is no exception. Clive Owen proves he has the suave charm to alternate between playing the heavy and the hero in any given film. Making his performance here all the more impressive is that he's forced to mumble through a mask the entire movie, yet he somehow still gives us a clear picture of his motivations. Not to mention he's also scary as hell in the hostage scenes. How this movie uses the hostages and makes them suspects is ingenious and all the ingredients were set in place for Inside Man to be a great crime caper. It's too bad the film runs out of gas before it can reach the finish line.

Thursday, August 17, 2006


Director: Cameron Crowe
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Orlando Bloom, Susan Sarandon, Judy Greer, Jessica Biel, Alec Baldwin

Running Time: 123 min.
Rating: PG-13

**** (out of ****)

A couple of weeks ago I was flipping through the channels and caught this motivational speaker who said we all have a choice. We can celebrate what's wrong with the world or what's right with it. Cameron Crowe is a filmmaker who very much celebrates the former and makes no apologies for it. His glass isn't just half-full, it's completely full to the point that it's almost overflowing. Despite having written and directed one of my all-time favorite films (2000's Almost Famous) as well as some other personal favorites (Say Anything and Vanilla Sky) I was told by everyone to stay far away from Crowe's Elizabethtown because I would just be setting myself up for disappointment.

The advance buzz on this movie was terrible and those who had seen it assured me it was justified. When it was screened at the Toronto Film Festival it was met with such disdain Crowe was forced to cut 18 minutes. The trimmed theatrical version (which I'm reviewing now) fared no better with critics and audiences and I've yet to read a positive review on it from anyone, causing me to actively avoid it for over a year. Shame on me. Elizabethtown isn't just one of 2005's best movies, but a celebration of the human spirit and an unforgettable experience. It's why I love movies. It's been rare that I see critics and audiences miss the boat on a picture as much as this one. I went in expecting a chick flick but came out experiencing something far more rewarding and meaningful. What's most frightening is that it's not even close to being Crowe's best picture, as that honor still belongs to Almost Famous. It, does, however deserve a place in Crowe's canon and further confirms my belief he's one of our most interesting storytellers.

Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) is a hotshot sneaker designer for a major billion dollar Oregon based shoe company clearly modeled after Nike. Drew is a star until he designs a sneaker called the Spasmodica, so horrible and ill-conceived (just look at the name) that it threatens to return the country to bare feet. As Drew narrates in the beginning, this is a "FIASCO," not a failure because fiascos "make other people happy it's not happening to them." In a few days it will be on the cover of every business magazine and the whole world will know. All Drew can do is wait. He enters the building to meet with C.E.O. Phil DeVoss (Alec Baldwin) and gets axed. This sequence must be seen to be believed as it doesn't go down at all like we're expecting it to and Crowe completely reverses all our expectations of how a movie firing scene is supposed to play out. He even treats us to a bizarre Alec Baldwin performance that manages to capture all the great zany weirdness he brings to his guest hosting stints on Saturday Night Live, but so rarely gets an opportunity to display in his big screen roles.

As if things weren't bad enough already, his hot girlfriend (Jessica Biel) dumps him and he returns home to his apartment to kill himself with the most inventive, but ineffective suicide contraption you'll ever see in a movie. But then the phone rings. It's his younger sister Heather (Judy Greer) telling him their father, Mitch has died of a heart attack visiting relatives and he has to come home to Elizabethtown, Kentucky to bury him. What happens over the next hour and a half is his journey.

On his plane trip to Kentucky, Drew is annoyed by a perky, ridiculously sweet and cheerful flight attendant named Claire Colburn (Kirsten Dunst) who makes it a point to draw him a map so he doesn't get lost when he gets there. The relationship that develops between Drew and Claire is tough territory to navigate if you're a director. Crowe though, knows what he's doing and the bond that develops between the two feels real and not forced like in so many other lesser films. He proves this in an all-night phone conversation scene with Claire and Drew. It's so tough to film a scene where two characters form a connection when they're in two entirely different locations. The way he films the scene using music, how he highlights their conversation and lets us know how much time is passing as they talk is brilliant. Even more impressive is that we never even notice it because we too are engulfed in the scene. This is how a real conversation between two characters like this would occur and the actors do a great job conveying the change that comes over them as they talk. It's at this moment that the movie turns the corner into something special.

Rich storytelling has become a lost art among today's directors, but nearly every scene in this film excels at it. I loved how when Drew arrived in Elizabethtown they greeted him as a returning folk hero because of the admiration they had for his dad. He doesn't know any of them, but they sure feel like they know him. I liked how time was devote to developing every single character no matter how important they were to the story. Like the little touch of Drew's cousin Jessie's heroes being Ronnie Van Zant and Abraham Lincoln and how his band almost opened for Lynyrd Skynyrd. I loved the video they showed the little kids to force them to behave and how they questioned Jessie's style of parenting. I loved how Bruce McGill (Animal House) portrays a smooth-talking family friend who once scammed Drew's dad out of a lot of money yet he's hanging around the house like he's family with a guilty look on his face. They feel like real touches and add up to a whole lot when the final credits role. Crowe even manages to get us to care about the wedding party that's staying at Drew's hotel when, in just a couple of scenes, he somehow manages to also weave them in as an integral part of the story.

When Drew's mom Hollie (Susan Sarandon) arrives, the movie takes advantage of a great opportunity to show an intergenerational culture clash between the two sides of the family over Mitch's wishes before his death. It's cremation vs. burial, but the hard feelings run deeper than that. Sarandon's performance in this role is just right. She goes through all the emotions that a woman who just lost her husband would, without overplaying any of them. Sarandon has a really difficult scene where she gives a speech at Mitch's memorial service to a roomful of relatives who despise her character. How she turns the crowd to her side and makes them laugh and cry with her could have been cringe inducing, but in Sarandon's capable hands it becomes moving. Drew's dad hardly has a scene in the movie, but because of these characters, we feel like we've know him forever.

Elizabethtown has often been compared to Zach Braff's Garden State, and it's not hard to see why. Both thematically cover the same territory with introspective twenty-somethings coming home to find themselves and both films feature memorable soundtracks. However, the comparison is unfair. It's unfair because I think this film is much better. Something always bothered me about Natalie Portman's performance in Garden State but I could never put my finger on it. Something about it seemed a little forced and out of her comfort zone. Now I realize I wish she gave the performance Kirsten Dunst gives in this movie. Here, Dunst is completely in her element like never before. She lights up the screen and she's so full of life, optimism and energy that you just can't help but love Claire. She starts out as an annoying stewardess, but then along with Drew you slowly start to realize there's something much deeper to this character and you'd believe she's capable of bringing this guy back from the emotional dead.

Orlando Bloom has the tougher job in this as the lead. He's been criticized for being too wooden and passive but that's what's called for. The whole point of the movie was to see him slowly open up to the world and wake up emotionally. Bloom couldn't have done a better job conveying that. Here's a scary thought: The role of Drew Baylor was originally supposed to go to Ashton Kutcher. Enough said.

Crowe (a former writer for Rolling Stone magazine) is often criticized for jamming all of his favorite songs into his films. So what? He's got great taste in music and is one of the few directors who understands the impact music can have in a movie. He also knows that music is the soundtrack to our lives and when we think of a memory or a moment, more often than not there's a song playing in the background (even if it's just in our heads). This soundtrack spares no expense with great stuff from Tom Petty, Elton John, Ryan Adams, My Morning Jacket and more. His wife Nancy Wilson (from Heart) supplies the score, as she does for all of his films, and as usual, the music fits the material perfectly.

The movie is based on Crowe's own trip to Kentucky after his father passed away, ironically just as his first film Say Anything hit theaters in 1989 . One of the top rules always listed for screenwriters is to not to write about personal experience. Thankfully, he doesn't follow it and should be an inspiration to anyone who ever thought about writing something autobiographical, but fears no one will care. He wears his heart on his sleeve and leaves everything up on the screen. It probably killed him to have to cut anything out of his film, but honestly the movie is fantastic as it is and 18 minutes probably wouldn't make a huge difference either way (although you never know as the uncut version of Almost Famous is far superior to the theatrical version).

The ending of the film I wouldn't dare give away. Let's just say if the first hour and fifty minutes of the film made me proud to be a moviegoer, then the last ten minutes of it made me proud to be an American. Crowe takes us on a tour through America we'll never forget, convincing us this adventure was deeper than we gave it credit for. Some will claim the ending's unrealistic. She'd never have the time or take the effort to do what she does for him. It's a testament to this story that I believed she would.

Friday, August 11, 2006

The Weather Man

Director: Gore Verbinski
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Michael Caine, Hope Davis
Running Time: 102 min.
Rating: PG-13

*** (out of ****)

No one disappears into a role like Nicholas Cage. In the canon of great Nic Cage performances his work here in The Weather Man probably falls somewhere below his performances in Matchstick Men, Leaving Las Vegas, and Adaptation but above National Treasure, Raising Arizona, and Con-Air. If you're a Cage fan this movie is a must-see, but going in be warned it's a dark comedy (a very dark one) with a really offbeat sense of humor.

Cage plays Chicago weatherman Dave Spritz (he was forced to shorten his name from Spritzel by the TV executives for obvious weather related reasons). He's divorced from his wife (Hope Davis), who clearly despises him, has a son in rehab, and a depressed, overweight, chain smoking 12 year old daughter Shelly whose nickname at school is "camel toe." One of the best scenes in the movie comes when Dave attempt to ask her why she thinks they call her that. He turns to his father, former Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Robert (Michael Caine in a great low-key supporting performance) for guidance and gets it, as he's the only voice of reason in Dave's life. Unfortunately though he's dying of cancer.

See Dave is one of those guys where nothing seems to go right in his personal or professional life and he can't seem to get a grasp on the fame being a weatherman brings him. It doesn't help that he's cursed at and pelted with Slurpees every time he walks on the street. He's a fake. His name sounds fake, his weather gimmicks ("Spritz Nipper" of the week) are fake and he knows this. The movie brings up something interesting because if you think about it everyone hates weathermen. They get paid a ridiculous amount of money to do an easy job and most of the time they're completely wrong. But really, who can accurately predict the weather? He has a hilarious encounter with a fan in one of the first scenes of the film who just wants an autograph, but Dave just can't seem to grasp why and they have a ridiculous argument. He feels just because they see him on tv they're not entitled to claim they know him or know anything about him. What's so funny about the movie is how hard Dave tries to be the person he thinks he should and the harder he tries to bigger the disasters get.

He attempts to bond with his daughter through archery, but it's really just an excuse for him to do it. The irony of him enjoying archery when he can't hit any other target in his life is not lost. He tries hopelessly to reconcile with his ex-wife but lies to her and harasses her current boyfriend, even slapping him with a glove for no reason. Watching Cage bumble through these scenes with that hangdog expression on his face is priceless. When he has to give a speech at his father's "living memorial" he starts it saying something so unrelated and ridiculously out of left field that it's hilarious.

The movie was directed by Gore Verbinski (of Pirates of The Caribbean fame) and is shot really well, almost incorporating the weather as a character in the film with the cold, snowy scenery in Chicago. A lot of small are thrown at us and most all of them work (although Dave's son's experience with a pedophile counselor was kind of off putting even for a comedy this dark). At one point Dave is told by his father that "nothing that has meaning is easy and that easy doesn't enter into grown-up life." After watching The Weather Man you'll have a great idea what he's talking about.

Wednesday, August 2, 2006

V For Vendetta

Director: James McTeigue
Starring: Hugo Weaving, Natalie Portman, Stephen Rea, Stephen Fry, John Hurt
Running Time: 132 min.
Rating: R

***1/2 (out of ****)

Right from the first scene of V For Vendetta you know this is a different kind of film. It doesn't waste any time doing what it wants to do, grabs hold, and doesn't let go for 135 minutes. It's a movie so full of deep, interesting ideas and non-stop action it almost can't be contained within the entire running length. Most movies would wait an hour building the backstory until we meet the anti-hero. Here, we see V immediately and learn more about him in the first minute than we know about any superhero character throughout an entire franchise of films. He gives an incredible speech using words that just start with the letter "V" that has to be heard to be believed, and replayed to be completely processed. That he actually has deep, interesting conversations with people, makes breakfast, and enjoys watching movies. Oh, did I mention he likes to kill people? Well, he doesn't enjoy it exactly, but it's a necessary evil. As a general rule I like to stay away from political movies about bleak futures and oppressive governments (think 1984) because I always thought there was nothing left to say and the idea well had run dry. I was wrong.

Sometime in the not so distant future in England a lone vigilante known as V (Hugo Weaving) has his sights set on overthrowing a totalitarian government led by a Nazi-like dictator (John Hurt) and sets the destruction date for the fifth of November. He enlists the help of Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman), a news network intern who on a late night walk is attacked by government thugs known as "Fingermen", then saved and captured by V. At first an unwilling participant, she learns she's way too deep into this to turn back. The relationship that develops between her and the masked man, his history, and his motives for destroying the government build the framework for an emotionally complex tale that also happens to be pretty gory at times.

To be fair, the violence is completely necessary to drive home what's at stake. Before long V is the most controversial terrorist the government has ever encountered, and the most dangerous. Most movies would just rely on the fact they have a guy in a cool mask killing people and call it a day. After all, that alone would sell tickets. That it was written and produced by the Wachowski Brothers (The Matrix trilogy) gave me little hope it would be any different. The Matrix in my opinion was one of the most overrated movies of the past 25 years that hid behind the false claim it had big ideas to deliver cool special effects. That the last two movies ran out of gas was no surprise. There was nothing in the tank to begin with. It was all style and no substance. This is all style and substance.

At first we're not quite sure whether to root for V or not but the script is brilliant in the way it unfolds to tell us who the man is behind the mask and what he's fighting for. Before long, we're knee deep in an enormous government conspiracy and the movie tackles issues involving war, disease, terrorism, homosexuality and church sex scandals. The movie's political for sure (and believe me the politics fall on one side) but it never distracts from the revenge story at the core. There's talk that the political overtones of this movie were meant as a shot at the Bush administration, but Alan Moore's graphic novel from which this was based came out in 1989 so I think people have been reading a little too far into this. If you look hard enough it could probably represent any government.

When I watched this film I thought of movies like Sam Raimi's Spiderman, where the hero is fighting for essentially nothing. V was a person, had a reason for existence and it was taken away. He gets help from the only person who will listen and because of her own past she understands. She never gets to see what he looks like and neither do we. We know he was disfigured in a horrific fire and the cause of that fire is what fuels his rage. There's a great scene when she leaves him and he throws his mask in anger knowing he can never have her. The story takes a turn, effectively, into Beauty and The Beast territory.

Not only does Natalie Portman pull off a believable British accent, she gives a truly brave performance in easily the best role of her career (yes that includes Garden State). She deserves an Oscar nomination but won't get one since Academy members will get amnesia as usual when it comes to recognizing performances past November of this year. It's hard to even believe this is the same person who starred in the Star Wars trilogy, proving what happens when an actress is given great material to work with. A big deal has been made over the fact she had her head shaved in one take (and she pulls off the bald look surprisingly well), but what's more impressive is what the scene represents and the emotional punch it delivers. She goes from trapped to free, girl to woman, fearful to courageous, all in one scene. When she loses her hair she can finally let go and we realize what V is fighting for.