Wednesday, August 31, 2005

What is a "swash," and how do you buckle it?: "The Adventures of Robin Hood"

Maybe I'm warped or something, but I think it would be hilarious to go to a mall and ask teenage girls if they heard of Errol Flynn. Even money says they'll ask if he's in a boy band. Then again, I can't tell you who's in "The O.C.," so I guess it's all relative.

No question that "The Adventures of Robin Hood" is one of those four-star movies that few people younger than 50 have ever seen. Aside from such well-known classics as "Gone with the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz," pre-WWII movies don't tend to scream at thirtysomethings from the the video store rack. Yet this "Robin Hood" always is held up as the definitive version, Kevin Costner be damned.

So I considered it my duty to give Ol' Errol a shot when "Robin Hood" was on TCM recently. No need to lay out the story since we all know it by now. The absence of good King Richard and the rise of evil Prince John leads a green-clad rogue to rob from the rich and give to the poor, ably assisted by Will Scarlett, Little John, Friar Tuck and the other merry men of Sherwood Forest. No Sheriff of Nottingham here, but Sir Guy of Gisbourne provides enough villainy, while Maid Marian gives Robin an itch in his tights.

For 1938, we get some pretty cool scenes, from vivid landscapes and costumes to lots o' arrows a-flying. I was genuinely surprised by all the killing on screen. No blood, sure, but a plenty of guys stumbling around with the business end of an arrow buried in their chests or even backs. It was messy business, flauting Prince John, I guess.

Flynn also was fun, although I have nothing to compare this performance with. I suppose "Captain Blood" is another famous role, but I've never seen that or any other Flynn movie. That leaves me to compare his Robin Hood to Jude Law's portrayal of Flynn in "The Aviator," and I suspect that's not very fair to Flynn.

Other actors came to play, too. Both Little John (played by the Skipper's dad) and Friar Tuck (some little fat guy) are amusing. Claude Rains, well known as Bogie's buddy in "Casablanca," is suitably sleazy as Prince John, while Basil Rathbone is snotty as Sir Guy. I guess Olivia de Havilland is beautiful as Maid Marian, but since we hardly ever see her without some kind of hair covering, I must reserve judgment. I mean, that just makes her another pretty face.

There's no question this movie loses something after, oh, almost 70 years. But that also makes it at least a little impressive: that a 1938 film can deliver decent action and colorful scenes. And really, when you can have a group of guys hanging out while wearing tights and not think they're a little sweet on each other, that's acting.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Whoa, whoa, whoa ... what do you mean you're out of pretzels?: "Red Eye"

It's official: I have a crush on Rachel McAdams.

First her winning personality was on full display in "Wedding Crashers." Now she plays a decent damsel in distress -- sort of -- in "Red Eye." I'm completely sold on her girl-next-door (but hot) vibe. Never bought it with Julia Roberts ("Conspiracy Theory"). Thought Jennifer Garner ("Dude, Where's My Car?") might have had it, but then she goes Affleck on us, proving she isn't as smart as "Alias" makes her out to be. That leaves us with Rachel, and that's fine by me.

As the trailers show us, McAdams is a hotel exec who finds herself seated next to Cillian -- did you that's pronounced "Killian?" Me neither -- Murphy on a red-eye flight back to Miami. After flirting with our heroine before the flight and during takeoff, Mr. Murphy reveals himself to be a bad man who wants McAdams to do bad things, and not the kind of stuff that involves a trapeze, coconut oil and a horse crop. No, he needs her to make it easier for a top Homeland Security official to get killed in her hotel. Otherwise Murphy's buddy will kill McAdams' dad. I gotta tell you, this is a turnoff for most girls.

That's our story in a nutshell, and at 85 minutes this movie doesn't get very complex. In a way, that's refreshing, and the able hands of director Wes Craven keep things moving along nicely. Sure, I was waiting for some twists and turns that never came, but it also wasn't bad to just sit back and see how these two kids were going to work everything out.

And both actors are solid. Murphy stays the villain course he plotted earlier this summer in "Batman Begins." What he lacks in size he makes up for with icy blue eyes; he delivered adequate menace, I thought. As for McAdams, she combined that fresh face with realistic emotion, from joking around early on to worrying about her dad the rest of the time. I was sold, but again, I'm a little biased.

In the end, this was a nice little late summer time-killer, easily worth matinee price. If you can tolerate the standard cat-and-mouse crap once the couple is off the plane, this is a perfect opportunity to turn off your brain. After all, our girl Rachel obviously did when she didn't ask for an upgrade to business class. Well, duh.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

And now for some more realistic high school kids: "Sky High"

Kurt Russell alone is almost always worth the price of admission, and I'll fight any man who says different.

Bold words, perhaps, but I can't help it. Maybe it's because I have a soft spot for "Big Trouble in Little China." (Need to get that on DVD.) Maybe it's because "Used Cars" should be required viewing for anyone who likes comedy. Maybe it's because "Escape from New York" is hilarious in its own, completely different way. Whatever the reason, I'm willing to give almost any movie -- let's not bring "3000 Miles to Graceland" into this -- a chance if my man Kurt is involved.

(A little trivia: Russell auditioned for the roles of Han Solo and Flash Gordon. And Ron Shelton wrote the Crash Davis role in "Bull Durham" for him. Wrap your brain around that.)

But "Sky High" also looked genuinely funny while being wholesome and cute, and that's exactly what it turned out to be. We get a world in which superheroes not only exist but procreate, with Russell and Kelly Preston ("Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn") -- the most powerful of all superheroes -- sending their son off to superhero high school.

Before we continue, a word about Preston, whom I neglected in my fawning over Russell. Like many red-blooded American men, I've been smitten with Kelly since she showed us the goods way back in "Secret Admirer." (Also featuring one of the legendary Fred Ward's better roles.) True, she's made questionable choices since then, not the least of which was marrying John Travolta and becoming a Scientologist. But every now and then she'll look really good, like in "Jerry Maguire" or "For Love of the Game." Even now that she's in parent mode -- she's also a mom in "What a Girl Wants,"which the missus watches a lot -- Preston is solid. So that was another thing in favor of "Sky High."

Anyway, the super couple's kid doesn't have any superpowers when he starts high school, adding to the typical angst that comes with being a freshman. Some of his story is standard: He pines for the hot girl while the girl who is his best friend pines for him. He also has to deal with bullies and a nemesis, before and after he discovers his super powers. (That's not ruining anything, believe me.)

But the Disney folks do a decent job of interweaving the high school stuff and the superhero stuff, and "Sky High" moves along rather briskly. No question everything is too sanitized; that easily is the most sexless high school I've ever seen. But most everyone seems to be having fun, and we even get a small role played by everyone's favorite boomstick-owner, Bruce Campbell.

I guess it comes down to whether you can leave the grit and grime of other movies behind for some family fun. "The Incredibles" is better, no question, but this was pretty decent for live-action comic book stuff. And again, you get Kurt Russell hamming it up. Heck, I may even forgive him for "Overboard."

Thursday, August 25, 2005

It's so hard being pretty, perky and zit-free: "Empire Records"

Can't remember the first time I saw this classic, and I have an even harder time explaining why I watched it again. Best I can figure, I stumbled across the beginning while winding down one night, then came across the second half of the movie a few nights later. Lucky me.

If you don't know "Empire Records," no need to panic. It nominally is the story of teenagers who work at an independent record store that is about to become a Tower/Virgin-type of megastore. Of course, this upsets our hearty band of hip misfits ... except there's really nothing that "misfit" about these well-scrubbed refugees from a Gap commercial.

I'll admit a curiosity factor in seeing a 26-year-old Renee Zellweger play a high-school slut just one year before she broke out in "Jerry Maguire." We also get one of my faves, Robin Tunney, except she shaves her head right at the start, which is a drag. Otherwise, it's other good-looking kids pretending to be either angst-ridden or goofy, neither convincingly. In fact, I can think of exactly one funny exchange:

Warren: Why don't you take these CDs and shove them up your ass?
Lucas: Because it would hurt a lot, Warren.

Other points of silliness: The store owner, Anthony LaPaglia, sports long hair and leather pants. Nice look. We also get a scene where a shoplifter -- the aforementioned Warren -- who is a wannabe employee pulls a gun on everyone but is so endearing in the end that he gets hired. Yeah, that totally would happen. Screw you guys.

Of course, I've yet to mention Liv Tyler who ... well, can't really act, can she? Let's face it: It's not like she had to use the Meisner technique to play an elf in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Everything else she's done pretty much relies on her batting those eyes and having a hazy glow around her fair visage. Yeah, I smell Oscar.

To recap: silly characters, inane plot, corny dialogue, LaPaglia in leather pants. Sure, this might make you think "Empire" falls into the "so bad, it's good" category. Sadly, it's no "Showgirls" or "Battlefield Earth." And that may be the unkindest cut of all.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Apparently Newman and Redford were unavailable: "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back"

It's not a stretch to say I feared the worst when this movie came out a few years ago. Hell, it's dead accurate: I thought this could be a bigger flop than "Cop Rock." (Sidenote: It's such a punchline, but have you ever seen "Cop Rock?" I caught an episode on that Trio channel that airs failed TV shows, and it truly was bizarre, both for the format and for including several actors who would go on to more respectable TV shows. But I digress.)

Anyhoo -- yeah, I know that's so 1998 -- I was thrilled to be proven wrong when I finally saw "J&SB" on DVD, so much that I eventually found said DVD in my possession. Which led to me watching it again in a few installments while putting in time on the treadmill lately. That's right ... a few installments. Hey, I'm not training for a marathon here, people.

Until "J&SB," Kevin Smith had become something of a wild card. I still remember the first time I saw "Clerks," but then we got "Mallrats" -- not as bad as everyone says, but not great. "Chasing Amy" offered redemption; a more spot-on look at how guys both want to know and don't want to know about their girlfriend's past is hard to find. But then we got "Dogma," which was cool for showing Matt Damon could play silly comedy but uneven in general.

Which brings us to "J&SB." The tale of two slackers first seen in "Clerks" gets off to a rocky start, and the early appearance of Ben Affleck doesn't help. But the story of Jay and Silent Bob going to Hollywood to stop a movie based on them eventually hits its stride and benefits from some pretty impressive casting and cameos. Take a look at the cast list yourself. A lot of funny people here.

My favorites? Hard to say. Seann William Scott ("Bulletproof Monk") has a brief but amusing role, and Will Ferrell ("The Ladies Man") has a larger role and some pretty hilarious lines, especially the understated ones. But the cameos -- and the writing related to them -- really are priceless. Once Jay and Silent Bob get to Hollywood, we're treated to Jason Biggs and James Van Der Beek -- their chat with our heroes is awesome -- as well as Affleck (playing himself, which is OK) and Damon, who are filming "Good Will Hunting 2: Hunting Season." Trust me, you just have to see it. (And Affleck was the bomb in "Phantoms.")

Sure, this may be a seemingly endless series of funny scenes vs. a legitimate plot, but so what? Unless you found the character of Jay completely unbearable in the first four Kevin Smith movies, you should be at least mildly entertained here. And those who liked the earlier movies will enjoy flagging the references to Smith's pocket change days in this big-budget effort -- $22 million vs. $27,000 for "Clerks."

Bottom line: Most of Smith's in-jokes work here, and the writing is sharp enough and the plots move along fast enough that you don't mind Jay's idiocy -- and actually find it endearing more than before. Throw in a group of nubile jewel thieves that includes Shannon Elizabeth and Eliza Dushku, and it just turns out to be good ol' movie fun. But help me out here ... what the f*ck is the Internet?

Was he Milli or Vanilli?

Either way, Rob Pilatus is spinning in his grave.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Putting the camp in "campy": "Friday the 13th"

C'mon, after all of the sequels, how can you resist watching the movie that spawned this unholy series? I actually had seen the first "Friday the 13th" way back when -- not when it came out, but still a while back. But when it was on cable not long ago, I hopped to TiVo it, if only to cast a critic's eye on one of the seminal horror movies of the last 25 years.

We all know the unholy trinity: Michael Myers (Halloween), Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and Jason (Friday the 13th). Together they dominated horror movies for a good quarter-century, and slams by movie critics notwithstanding, that's saying something. Really ... nobody talks about "Troll" or "Ghoulies," and other serial killer fun, such as "I Know What You Did Last Summer," is just stupid. But looking back on the "Friday the 13th" series, you can't help but admire the simplicity and silliness. I mean, there's no way that could have been lost on the folks making this crap, right?

The first installment of the venerated (sic) series is almost quaint. We have a pre-credit scene showing that Camp Crystal Lake isn't without its dark secrets, followed by a crew of nubile teens heading up the very site several years later. Of course, this now a tired cliche. Tired? Hell, this cliche has dropped dead from exhaustion. But back in 1980 -- that's right, "Friday the 13th" is 25 years old -- this wasn't old hat. Sure, there had been horror movies, but nothing that had so streamlined the empty-headed kids looking to goof off and get laid while an unseen predator picked them off one by one.

That beauty in simplicity makes "Friday the 13th" eminently watchable, as does the heavy use of the "killer-cam." Again, we had seen this before, but "13th" took it to a new level. Some scenes -- OK, most scenes -- were almost comedic with the camera following people around corners, peeking through windows, going through phone lines ... you know what I mean. But hey, this is low-budget horror, and I don't recall seeing Pacino or Streep belting out any monologues.

We do, however, get Kevin Bacon, which is rather funny. And the other "performances" as campers get eliminated are sufficiently second-rate. By the time Mrs. Voorhees -- played by Betsy Palmer, who had some roles in the '50s but will be linked to this role forever -- appears, we're used to forced dialogue and bizarre characters. I mean, when you're introduced to the audience an hour after the killing starts, it's not exactly a stretch to consider you Suspect No. 1.

Probably the most notable thing about the first "13th" movie, at least for the uninitiated, is that Jason doesn't do the killing and appears only near the end via a shameless ripoff of the movie "Carrie." I didn't know that the first time around, and even with that knowledge the end of the movie still provides a nice little jolt. Little did we know it also would set into motion a seemingly endless train of sequels that would have hockey mask manufacturers kicking up their heels for years.

Friday, August 19, 2005

What was that I said about the sky?

I wanted to make a joke here but really can't improve on the truth.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Honesty is the best policy

Of course, I've been known to go by "Dick Wazinya."

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Neither boring nor spectacular ... just good: "High Fidelity"

You'd think a movie about which you can say, "Wow, they really nailed it," would make you feel good, right? Alas, when the "nailing it" regards how men are rather warped when it comes to the courtship of women, well, you can see how that might make a few fellas a wee bit uncomfortable. (Hee, hee ... I said "wee.")

Fortunately, now that I'm married, I can watch "High Fidelity" without repercussions. No questions about whether I'm going to flake out like John Cusack's character and vacilate endlessly between fantasy and reality while not really advancing my life beyond that week. Of course, this also means I can't stumble into a hookup with a hip singer or flirt with a nubile music columnist. Yeah, it's a trade-off.

I've owned "High Fidelity" for a while and popped it into the DVD player the other night as the truce movie following our usual "Moonstruck" vs. "Die Hard" debate. Even with my married status, this definitely falls into the eminently rewatchable category, as I can still very much identify with Cusack's character always wondering if there's someone better or more perfect or just different out there. That was me in my 20s, although, again, without the hip singer hookup. Best I can claim is scoring with a mayor's niece, and that's not exactly Liz Phair.

Our story has us following Cusack ("The Journey of Natty Gann") as his live-in girlfriend leaves him, spurring reflection on previous "loves" and his life in general, namely as a mopey used record store owner. Disaffected coolness abounds, with Cusack and his nerd helpers, Jack Black ("The Jackal") and Todd Louiso ("8 Heads in a Duffel Bag"), giving us fun scenes in the record store and beyond while Cusack struggles to win back his woman.

Black is pretty funny, and Louiso holds his own as the quiet yin to Jackie's outrageous yang. And we also get a pretty amusing turn by Tim Robbins ("Top Gun") as the guy Cusack's girlfriend shacks up with. The writing is pretty solid, too. Yeah, there are a few too many cases of Cusack pontificating to the camera, to the point that both his witticisms and the so-called heartfelt stuff feel forced. But for the most part we get a pretty good look into the psyche of the not-quite-grown-up man.

More than the whole thing with Cusack tracking down his old girlfriends, the part of the movie that really resonated -- other than what goes into a great mix tape -- was when he realized that moving from girl to girl was just chasing a perfect fantasy that doesn't exist. The underwear bit -- every girl has the worn cotton panties but wears the good stuff for early dates -- is dead-on. This movie also makes me think of a somewhat famous quotation. I forget ... was it Socrates or Plato who said, "No matter how good-looking she is, someone else is sick and tired of her bullsh*t ... "

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

If you thought these guys were bad when it came to Iraq ... : "The French Connection"

The clock's ticking on some of these TCM and IFC movies. I keep adding them to the TiVo list, and before long those little hourglasses show up, warning me of their impending deletion. That's also enough to give the missus an itchy "erase" finger, especially since there's no end to Lifetime movies and reruns of "Judging Amy" she deems worth taping. Oh, the humanity.

So I hopped to it the other night and knocked out "The French Connection," a not-bad '70s police movie. Not sure I give it four stars like most reviewers, probably because we've had plenty of gritty cop movies since Gene Hackman ("Superman IV: The Quest for Peace") was running wild in 1970s Manhattan. Then again, there's an element of truth to this tale, a la "Serpico," and both Hackman and some of the action scenes are fun to watch.

Our man Geno plays Popeye Doyle, a New York narcotics cop who along with his partner stumbles onto a big heroin deal coming from France. There's just one problem: They need to catch the frogs in action. We get some set-up on how Doyle is something of a mess, alternately abusive to civilians and money with the ladies. But the movie mostly zips along as Hackman and his partner, played by Roy Scheider ("Blue Thunder"), shadow the players in the deal with mixed success.

Some scenes stand out and porbably are considered classics. One situation with Doyle following the lead villain had the two comically stepping into and out of a subway car before the bad guy finally shakes Doyle. Then there's the big chase scene, which definitely is unique. After all, you have a cop in a car chasing a subway. Now that's something you don't see everyday, and -- spoiler alert -- when all the swerving, screeching and crashing is done and the bad guy sees Hackman waiting for him at the bottom of the subway stairs, it's pretty satisfying.

Overall, everyone probably should see this just because it's an Oscar winner -- best picture, actor and director, as well as others. It also offers a nice look at flawed cops and '70s NYC, complete with a seedy Times Square. I swear there were a bunch of hookers and a peep show where the ESPN Zone now stands. Progress? You be the judge.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

In other news, the sky is blue: "Outfoxed"

So the in-laws visited this weekend, which meant two things:
1. No blogging time for yours truly until now.
2. The danger of awkward political discussions.

You see, her folks voted for everyone's favorite W last year ... and in 2000, too. No question they're in the "Bush is like me/a real patriot" camp, which tends to flummox me and the missus, especially since he's a union guy. That's why I usually just ask them about the weather. Much safer that way.

Of course, that didn't keep me from zipping through Democrats' second-favorite documentary of '04, "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism." Watched this Thursday night, and the timing also was good with me recently getting back into the world of journalism myself.

So what did I really learn about Fox News? Not much that I didn't already know, it turns out. Believe it or not, this "fair and balanced" cable news channel tends to be a little biased, and not toward Bill Clinton, John Kerry and Ted Kennedy. Another thing: "We Report, You Decide" really means "We Don't Report, You Listen to Us Yell." While this wasn't a surprise, it was worth seeing how this guy Robert Greenwald made his case, especially after giving the world "Xanadu" and "The Burning Bed."

Greenwald trots out a lot of former Fox News employees, and even if you write off some as sour grapes, many come across as articulate and with no ax to grind other than their dismay at how a decent job could go bad based on naked bias. No question there were plenty of days when they had to work with one hand because they were holding their noses with the other, and Greenwald offers plenty of examples through solid interviews and editing. Not that Bill O'Reilly needs any help looking like an ass with an agenda.

True, the movie trots out Al Franken, which doesn't exactly promise a measured view on Fox News. And the "Call to Action" at the end, with "Layla" playing in the background, is a bit much. But some stuff is compelling. For instance, the way O'Reilly berates a kid who lost his dad in 9/11 yet has the gall to oppose the war in Iraq. The nerve! Also solid is research by the group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, which found that Fox News programs include Democrats as guests as often as they do juggling cats. (Not to be confused with cat jugglers.)

Probably the most damning evidence of conservative bias was a Fox reporter who covered the 2000 presidential campaign ... and whose wife actively campaigned for Bush. Somehow Greenwald got hold of footage between the reporter, Carl Cameron, and Bush before an interview, in which the two talk openly about Cameron's wife and her campaigning. It really did seem like Bush knew he not only got a pass from Fox News, but could pretty much tell them what to say. "Um, Carl, you really should take off that Bush-Cheney campaign button before we go live ... "

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Nope, you really can't blame Brad: "Mr. and Mrs. Smith"

Yeah, this still is in theaters ... barely. While "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" had been on my list for a while, it wasn't until the missus and I had our own little quarrel -- she says tastes great, but I must insist on less filling -- that I snuck out to see this ins a tiny, 51-seat theater. (I counted.) Amazingly, there were four other people there. More amazingly, one putz hadn't turned off his cell phone, and he took a call. I do love going to the cinema.

But I digress. "Smith" has the dubious distinction of creating "Brangelina," and it's only natural to wonder if Brad Pitt ("The Mexican") and Angelina Jolie ("Hackers") really do have the same chemistry onscreen as they have on the pages of "People." Then again, with those lips and that body, Angelina could have chemistry with the Elephant Man. "I AM NOT AN ANIMAL ... but I must admit you're giving me ideas, young lady ... "

As you know, our perfect couple play ... the perfect couple, nicely groomed and married with a nice house, nice cars and nice jobs. Alas, this means they're in marriage counseling. And, as it turns out, their real jobs are as professional assassins. When each of them discovers what the other does for a living, sparks -- and bullets -- fly! (Did that sound like a press release? That's what I was going for.)

It's a cute idea -- shades of "True Lies," I kept thinking -- that's ripe for all sorts of fun scenes, especially in the hands of a decent director, Doug Liman (of "Swingers" and "The Bourne Identity" fame). And Pitt and Jolie, despite a decade-plus separating their ages, seem game enough -- him alternating between smirky and pretty, while she smolders and ... smolders. Oh, how she smolders. Smolder, smolder, smolder, you little minx. Is it warm in here?

(Really, how could Jennifer Anniston compete with that? Jolie has a more unique look and made her bones in movies -- and won an Oscar -- while Anniston always will be a TV girl. She also loves to party and get weird (vial a blood around your neck, anyone?) yet is socially conscious with those adoptions and whatnot. And all this before she turned 30. Even with the tattoos and weird brother fixation, it's no contest, really.)

Bottom line: "Smith" is light and amusing, but nothing especially clever or inventive, which becomes more noticeable as it drags on. Trim a good 10-15 minutes from the movie and throw in a few more good lines -- even Vince Vaughn ("The Lost World") doesn't get much to work with -- and this could have been really solid. As it was, I enjoyed the escapist fare on a weeknight. And of course, there was smoldering.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Who can take a sunrise, sprinkle it with dew?: "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"

For ironic timing, you can't beat "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." Just as the Lord of Neverland Manor, Michael Jackson, disappears from view following his acquital, we get another pasty-faced recluse with a weird fixation on kids. I surely wasn't the only one thinking of the parallel while watching the trailers for "Charlie," and when Willy Wonka can't bring himself to utter the word "parents" in the movie ... well, it's hard not to get the willies.

That's one hurdle when it comes to this movie, but it fortunately doesn't kill the film altogether. I'll admit to "Charlie" being low on my priority list -- hey, I paid to see "The Island," remember? -- but it also was about the only thing the missus and I could agree on this weekend. For some reason, she wasn't as intrigued by Jessica Simpson as Daisy Duke. Go figure.

Besides, most of the "Charlie" reviews were good, right? Um, yeah, but I'm afraid that all the praise doesn't matter when the movie falls short of the original. That's what I came away thinking, and I'm not sure it's just because I've seen the Gene Wilder version a hundred times.

Our story hasn't changed much since 1971, and there really is no harm in updating it more than 30 years later. To his credit, Tim Burton adds a few nice touches, such as more background on Wonka's factory and the man himself. No question this movie has more depth and exposition than "Wonka," and I was less bored leading up to the factory tour; with the original, there's absolutely no shame in skipping ahead to the part when Wilder-as-Wonka limps to the front gate and does his famous somersault -- one of my alltime favorite movie scenes.

Unfortunately, the tradeoff comes in the performances. First, there are the kids. No question that Freddie Highmore is an infinitely superior Charlie, and that his maturity compared with Wonka's childlike behavior is nicely portrayed. But the other kids ... not so much. True, no one expects any of these brats to be little De Niros -- the roles don't call for it. Still, if they're going to be one-dimensional nightmares, maybe they should have been even more out there.

And then there's Johnny Depp ("The Astronaut's Wife"), Tim Burton's muse and the man who would be Wonka. I've heralded Depp's acting chops before, and he has a nice go at this role. But I never really bought the whole "closet case one minute, menace the other" bit. I don't know ... maybe I just can't get Wilder out of my mind. In any case, I really liked his whole "friendly at first, smart-ass for the duration" schtick. ("We have so much time and so little to do. Wait, strike that, reverse it.") Depp went in another direction, which I respect. I'm just not sure he sold it, even with the context of Wonka's life. Like I said, maybe it's just me.

This also doesn't detract from the enjoyable parts of "Charlie," foremost among them the Oompa Loompas, all played by the same 4' 4" guy named Deep Roy. (And you're not alone if that screamed "porn name" to you.) The musical numbers -- scored by Danny Elfman, who along with Burton and Depp form such a tight trio I assume the're on a bowling team -- are catchy enough, and Ol' Deep seems to having fun as various Oompa Loompas. Oh, and if he looks familiar, maybe it was because he played the little pet of Princess Aura in "Flash Gordon." That's right, 25 years ago, baby. And here you thought I was flying blind on a rocket cycle ...

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Fun for the whole family: "Ordinary People"

This is one of those classics I hadn't seen, probably because it never gets heavy rotation on cable -- Here's a light, feel-good movie to pass the time! -- and because I've never found myself thinking, "Hmmmm, what am I in the mood for? I know ... family dysfunction following a tragedy! I'll get the popcorn!"

Impressive alone for being Robert Redford's directorial debut, "Ordinary People" follows a well-to-do suburban Chicago family after one son has died in an accident and the other tried to kill himself. The movie starts midstream -- after both of these terrible events have happened -- and it's not overstating to say the tension clobbers you right from the outset. It's like walking into a family's home right after everyone just had a big fight and is trying not to show it to their guests. Awkward? Just a bit.

All three of the leads deliver solid performances, giving the appropriate heft and depth to their respective roles. Donald Sutherland ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer") plays the dad futilely trying to keep everyone happy during their collective recovery, a job so easy that he hits the bottle hard at parties. Mary Tyler Moore ("Keys to Tulsa") is the mom who isn't so much distant as just closed off, and who so favored her dead son that she can't relate to the one she has left. Her polished, icy facade is pretty stunning considering she was America's sweetheart for so many years at TV. (And yeah, I thought she was kind of hot on "The Dick Van Dyke Show." There, I said it.)

Then we have Timothy Hutton ("Turk 182"), who played the tormented son and won an Oscar at the tender age of 20 for his trouble. "Ordinary People" was his first big role, and his hollow-eyed, twitchy teen recovering from a suicide attempt really is solid. This kid looks so lost he should have a note pinned to his sleeve at all times.

Everyone's favorite cabbie, Judd Hirsch, shows up as Hutton's shrink, and he's pretty good, too. (Even though IMDB reports he was second choice after Gene Hackman.) But this is mostly Hutton's show, and sort of conjures the question of where you go after winning an Oscar at 20.

I mean, this is a tough act to follow, and Hutton himself might admit it's been downhill -- gradually, but still downhill -- from there. When he's played a lead, i.e. "The Dark Half" or "Q&A," the movie hasn't burned up the box office. Throw him into an ensemble or as a supporting role, i.e. "Beautiful Girls" or "Kinsey," and he fares a little better. Still, I don't think the little golden dude on his mantel should expect company anytime soon.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Well, if they're not going to remake "The Ice Pirates" ... : "Firefly"

Funny thing about cult TV shows: One can flop horribly the first time around, yet a hearty band of fans somehow manages to keep it alive long enough that someone will turn it into an actual movie. That's like not being able to handle the grill at Burger King and then being promoted to head chef at a four-star restaurant. You know, one with all the forks and everything.

Exhibit A, of course, is "Star Trek," which never thrived in prime time yet became popular in reruns and spawned a major motion picture franchise and several related TV series, not to mention an endless number of conventions that further retarded the social growth on countless teenage boys. (Go play Dungeons and Dragons instead, you losers!) Some people might think "Firefly" will turn out the same way, with its short, failed run as a primetime series offset by fervent fans and an upcoming big-screen version coming out this fall.

I missed "Firefly" the first time around -- back in '02, I think, when I was busy catching up on "The Sopranos" -- but became curious after hearing people complain that it was "misunderstood." Hey, I feel the same way about "Manimal." So when the SciFi Channel began running the short-lived series recently -- the same night as the new "Battlestar Galactica"; yes, I'm a geek -- I wanted to see what was what, as the kids say.

Helping matters was that SciFi ran the original two-hour pilot for the show, which was not used to launch the series a few years back. "Firefly" fans bitch about this, I've gathered, and they probably have a point as the pilot, "Serenity" -- also the name of the forthcoming big-screen version -- seems to set the stage well enough for a series vs. making viewers feel like they've come in midstream. As someone whose spouse tends to ask a lot of questions while watching TV -- "Wait, who is that again? Why did she do that? I'm confused" -- I appreciate this.

Our story: A ragtag spaceship crew is just trying to get by in a universe run by some "Alliance" and populated with planets that seem to resemble the Old West instead of the high-tech future. Within this odd combination of genres, the crew picks up a mysterious brother and sister on the run from the Alliance, putting the ship's captain in a tight spot.

Not bad, I guess, and the "space western" thing is unique for TV, although I don't know if this is all good. I mean, it's a little jarring to have these guys zipping among the stars, then strutting around in boots with six-shooters on their hips. If you can bounce from planet to planet, can't you come up with a cool raygun, Buck Rogers?

The other thing is the length, which could have been shorter and cut down on some of the exposition upfront. I know this is setting up a series, but there's a whole lot of talking and not much action in the first hour. The second half makes up for this a little, between a shootout and a spaceship chase, but the movie probably could have been closer to 90 minutes and given us a leaner, faster-paced story.

One final note: While the cast is mostly unknowns, two bear mentioning. First is a preacher man played by Ron Glass, whom you may recall from the sitcom "Barney Miller." Now that's going back. The second guy is the ship's captain, played by someone named Nathan Fillion. I don't expect you to know the name; I didn't. But he looked familiar, and I realized he played the boyfriend of the girl in "Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place," perhaps the most absurdly-titled sitcom of the last decade. Not something at the top of his resume, I'm guessing.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Ice, ice, baby: "The Day After Tomorrow"

Maybe they've already handed out these awards, but can we agree that "The Day After Tomorrow" is the stupidest movie title of 2004? Sure, it has this BIG, IMPORTANT FEEL to it. But when you learn what the movie is about, it doesn't make a lick of sense. Really, it's like someone said, "We can make this sound like a big, important movie if we give it a heavy title that doesn't actually mean anything. Let's do it!"

I toyed with seeing what I'll call "The DAT" when it came out last year, for no other reason than it was the first movie with big screen-filling special effects before the summer season started in earnest. Fortunately, I came to my senses and quelled my customary urge to see a movie just because it will look good on the big screen. "Oooooh! Big explosions and lots of noise! Wheeeeeeee!"

Of course, that didn't keep me from catching "The DAT" on HBO last week, at which time I patted myself on the back for showing restraint in '04. Oh, the movie didn't suck across the board. But any curiosity generated by the premise was handily offset by boring characters, generally silly developments and a lack of interesting stuff beyond the CGI scenery.

This shouldn't be a surprise, considering the director, Roland Emmerich, also helmed such classics as "Stargate," "Independence Day," "Godzilla" and "The Patriot." I've seen the first two, which have a few redeeming values but won't be confused with Kubrick anytime soon. Mainly what we can expect from Roland is a lot of running and banging around, and a bunch of wide shots that show "the gravity of the situation." Ooooohhhh.

We get wide shots galore in "The DAT," and they're not bad overall. Also, it really isn't that bad of an idea to build a movie around a sudden ice age. Somewhat topical given the global warming issue, and it beats having a meteor slam into the planet. But things soon get out of hand in the believability department, from twisters galore taking out Los Angeles to the overall idea of this killer cold advancing south from the North Pole.

It's barely worth mentioning the cast since the real star here is the weather. Dennis Quaid ("Caveman") is our hero and doesn't get much to do except warn people and then worry about his son, played by Jake Gylllllllenhaaaaaaal, who clearly is capabale of more, i.e. "Donnie Darko," or even "The Good Girl." Beyond that, we have the dead girl from "Mystic River" (Emmy Rossum) and Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), neither of whom who show more than one dimension as the world approaches deep freeze. But hey, I'm sure the sledding was just great.

Talk about your hollow man ...

I actually saw a couple of these, I'm mildly ashamed to say. Really, how many people will file claims if it means admitting you paid for "The Animal?"

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

If we break up I'll just die ... and then come back: "Shaun of the Dead"

We all know dead men tell no tales. But apparently they can get up and walk around for a while. Not a bad trick, and really ... given zombies' limited vocabulary, who'd want to hear a story from them anyway?

I wouldn't call myself a fan of zombie movies, but I've seen and enjoyed my fair share, most notably both versions of "Dawn of the Dead." I also caught "28 Days Later" a couple of times but didn't think it was quite as remarkable as everyone else. What all this means is that when I heard about the world's first zombie romantic comedy -- "zom rom com" -- I knew there was potential for something fun, and I was only too happy to have Netflix send it my way.

So very British, "Shaun of the Dead" gives us a slacker electronics store employee who gets dumped by his girlfriend and then wakes up to find London overrun by zombies ... and not sure which is worse. But instead of the lightning quick savages and general dread of the "Dawn" remake and "28 Days," we have undead more faithful to George Romero's original vision: lumbering slowpokes going through the routines of their lives even though they're dead.

The main joke here, and it's not that subtle, is that Shaun, his best friend and others already are zombies of a sort, and the appearance of the real deal just provides occasion for Shaun and Co. to make their way to safety in the local pub (which they already visit day in and day out, like ... well, you know). It also provides for plenty of fun scenes with dry quips, humorous debates, a dash of pop culture -- i.e. deciding which albums to hurl at the undead (not "Purple Rain!") -- and references to other zombie movies. We get mention of a guy named Ash, for instance. Nice. Also, Shaun's pal Ed is pretty funny as the consumate slacker, although not so lazy he can't answer his mobile phone while pretending to be a zombie. After all, it could be someone with a little weed.

Since this is British, "Shaun" no doubt is an acquired taste for some. And yes, I realize I've been dogging the limeys and their films over the last couple of weeks. But I also love "The Office" and think the original "Coupling" isn't bad, either, and "Shaun" incorporates some of that wit while having the not-quite-alive stroll around the neighborhood. Maybe it's something about everyone being so put upon while not actually doing much of anything. Just get up, go to the store, go to work, go to the pub, day in, day out, kind of like ... well, you know.

Monday, August 01, 2005

But it was supposed to be a three-hour tour ... a three-hour tour!: "The Island"

Listen, I'm not going to sit here and say that Michael Bay gets a bad rap. His movies mostly suck ass, and his scenes are about a subtle as Courtney Love in a convent. But you have to admit the first "Bad Boys" was mildly entertaining, and "The Rock" was even fun. Good dialogue? Nope, just shoot-shoot, bang-bang, crash-crash, and that's not bad all of the time.

Of course, Bay didn't quit after those two decent efforts, instead unleashing upon the world the unholy trinity of "Armageddon," "Pearl Harbor" and "Bad Boys II." So I considered "The Island" carefully ... Bay's recent string of noisy crap vs. a promising plot and a couple of real actors with a capital A: Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson.

Maybe "promising plot" is a little generous, since this turned out to be a curious amalgam of "Logan's Run," "The Sixth Day" and, from way back, "Coma." None of those is a classic, but all had their interesting points, and "The Island" starts off intelligently enough. Shedding his Jedi robes, McGregor ("Eye of the Beholder") plays a guy named Lincoln Six Echo who lives in a sealed off community after most of the world's population has been wiped out by some kind of "contamination."

He's friends with Scarlettttttt Johansssssssson, who has lost some baby fat and picked up blond tresses since "Lost in Translation." For the most part, it's an improvement, and she gets foxier as the movie progresses. But let me share something that has sort of ruined Scarlett for me: She has a "butthole mouth." That's what my uncle said about her round, full lips, and no matter how she bats her eyes and slinks around, I keep coming back to that. No need to thank me.

Within this society, the goal is to be picked to go to the Island, a contamination-free zone outside city walls. Alas, the Island doesn't exist, as Lincoln learns the "winners" actually are killed and harvested for their newborn babies, organs ... anything usable. That's because they're clones, not real humans. (I ruin nothing by sharing this, since the trailer spells this out.)

All this discovery unfolds nicely enough, but when Ewan and Scarlett escape to the outside, Bay finally cuts loose with his old habits. We get chasing, we get shooting, we get crashing, we get one-liner ... -ing, I guess. Some of this is OK, but it all adds up to too much of the usual slam-bang, Bay-blowing-crap-up stuff when a little restraint and a little more thought might have helped.

That said, the second half isn't a total loss. There's the requisite Steve Buscemi flake character, and Djimon Hounsou -- whose named I still can't pronounce -- does as much as he can with a threadbare role. As for those loud chase scenes, we even get a few laughs, from bad guys getting clotheslined by low-hanging objects to a scene in which our heroes survive a fall from a skyscraper -- something so unbelievable you almost have to give Bay credit for having the balls to include it. It's almost like he's telling the audience, "Hey, I had people try to blow up a meteor. This is nothing, folks."