Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Sometimes the timing is perfect ... and, quite frankly, creepy: "Little Miss Sunshine"

Really ... it's almost like John Mark Karr should have a cameo in this movie. You know, if he can get a furlough from the funny farm.

Here's a movie I really didn't know much about, other than it was well-received, before The Person Who Gives My Life All Meaning and I used our movie theater gift certificates the other night. It's a shame we burned those, though, because "Little Miss Sunshine" would have been well worth the prime-time price.

The plot seems simple: Dysfunctional family takes road trip so little girl can compete in a beauty pageant. But as with so many dysfunctional family comedy-dramas, there's so much more! Like the mother's suicidal brother, and the father's crazy dad, and the couple's withdrawn son. Hell, while we're at it, why don't we throw a cross-dressing cousin and a disembodied hand that lives in a box into the fray?

(Yeah, a shout-out to Thing. And you thought I preferred Uncle Fester.)

Although we have to wait for the family to hit the road, the build-up is necessary and well-handled. We meet each character separately at the start, then watch them interact enough to see the various strains between people -- husband-wife, mother-son, grandpa-son.

The mother, Toni "Don't call me Muriel" Collette brings her professor brother, Steve "I can do deadpan, seriously!" Carell, home from the hospital and puts him up in her son's room. You may recognize the kid as Klitz from "The Girl Next Door," although he's taken a vow of silence here. Typical teenage horsesh*t.

Meanwhile, the little girl is being coached for the beauty pageant by her grandpa, the hee-larious Alan Arkin. He's been in plenty of stuff, but right now I can't get the image of him as John Cusack's shrink in "Grosse Pointe Blank" out of my mind. "That wasn't designed to make me feel good!" Finally, we have the girl's father and Arkin's son, a struggling motivational speaker played by Greg "If we never talk about 'Dear God' I'll be OK" Kinnear.

If that sounds like a decent cast, well, it is. Best of all may be the little girl, Abigail Breslin. The name meant nothing to me, but near the end of the movie, my wife pointed out that she was the even littler girl in "Signs" who always wanted a glass of water. Nice call, honey!

So yeah, a great ensemble, and some pretty funny dialogue and developments as the family makes it way from New Mexico to California for the "Little Miss Sunshine" pageant. Grandpa gives some hugely amusing advice to the brooding teen, Kinnear and Carell -- with nothing in common as a motivator and a scholar, respectively -- argue, someone gets extremely sleepy ... the hits just keep coming, but not in a slapdash Will Ferrell-Jack Black way. This actually makes sense, even when it gets outrageous, and it's drier and darker than simple locker-room humor. If there was a fart joke in "Sunshine," I missed it.

Good as it is, none of the movie can prepare you for the finale, which hands-down was one of the funniest and cleverest things I've seen in a long time. As you might guess, the little girls beauty pageant is shocking and creepy in its own way, and the movie's ultimate commentary on the whole sordid business is razor-sharp. Ask my wife ... I really was rolling in the end. And for once, it wasn't from me telling people that if we had a daughter, her name would be "JonBenet."

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Prelude to a hiss: "Snakes on a Plane"

Did I say this movie would gross $50 million opening weekend? No, no, no ... I meant $15 million. Really!

I'll admit, I enjoyed the pre-release, Internet-driven hype for "Snakes on a Plane." Alas, it clearly wasn't based on people who actually wanted to see the movie, but rather the joy in saying/typing "Snakes on a Plane." Try it with me ... "Snakes on a Plane." Tee hee.

I'll further admit that the title made me laugh again once it appeared on the big screen. Seriously, doesn't it sound more like (a) a quick pitch at Paramount or (b) a straight-to-video "movie" starring Lorenzo Lamas and Antonio Sabato Jr.? But there it was, in big letters at my local multiplex. And there I was, shelling out $4 -- the 11 a.m. Sunday special -- for the privilege of watching Sam Jackson swear at serpents.

There's no question you have to admire the chutzpah in a studio releasing a movie with this title. We've all heard the story about Jackson putting his foot down when they considered changing the title to something more benign: "Pacific Flight 121." God bless him. I can't wait to tell my kids I actually paid money for a movie called "Snakes on a Plane."

As if I need to explain the plot, here it is: Surfer dude sees a crime boss kill someone in Hawaii, so he has to testify in L.A. But the crime boss stashes a bunch of poisonous snakes on the plane. Hijinks ensue.

While this doesn't seem the most practical way to kill someone, it does make for a plethora of silly scenes and laughable deaths, from bites on the boob and d*ck to some under-the-clothes snake action to popping out of a barf bag to gobbling up a passenger whole. Yeah, it's pretty dumb. Fortunately, Jackson -- as an FBI agent ferrying the witness to L.A. -- plays the whole thing cool, giving his most understated performance ever.

Of course he doesn't! Sure, Sam doesn't yell all the time, but he does all the Sam things, culminating in the movie's signature line. No, not "Wait a minute, this dipsh*t sent snakes to kill the guy?" I talking about ...

"I have had it with these motherf*cking snakes on this motherf*cking plane!"

Funny, huh? Well, yes and no. The high-camp potential of this movie is clear, but I think they could have pushed it even more -- with the snakes, with the Sam, with the sheer absurdity of the plot. No, nothing is at all believeable about this, but some folks still seemed to be playing it straight, and not all of the killing was funny. I mean, poor Juliana Margulies. She's second-billed and has a hard time hiding the "I left 'ER' to be in movies but not this crap" look on her face.

Other actors are even lower on the food chain: Rachel Blanchard, Kenan Thompson, Todd Louiso, Bobby Cannavale, Lin Shaye and David Koechner (channeling Champ Kind, just a tad softer). Heck, they're not even worth those funny movie references, i.e. Bobby "Shall We Dance" Cannavale. But you know what? I'm guessing De Niro and Streep just weren't available.

In the end, this is a movie you see -- or at least, I saw -- just to say you saw it. Good movie? Um, no, and not even the campiest, goofiest bad movie I've seen. Sadly, I think a few critics succumbed to the hype and figured they could give it a thumbs up as long as they said, "It's so silly!" And check out this insanity. Yeah ... almost 8 out of 10. Sure. Whatever you say.

So, no, not good, and only halfway funny, not very scary and -- believe it or not -- kind of boring at times. (Even with the "snake cam.") But great title? Of course. Do I want a T-shirt? You bet. My size? Large.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

More like Gus Van CAN'T!

Seriously, Gus Van Sant sucks.

I won't spend a lot of time on this, but you need to know the facts. The first Van Sant movie I saw was "To Die For," which I thought was pretty good. Nicole Kidman was great, and Matt Dillon and a young Joaquin Phoenix weren't bad, either. Then came the biggie: "Good Will Hunting." It's a tad overrated but still good, especially Robin Williams. ("Good Will Hunting 2: Hunting Season" would have been better, though.)

Alas, since then, Sh*tsville. I'll grant that "Finding Forrester," schlocky as it is, is tolerable. But the root of this post lies with three movies:

1. "Gerry," which I rented a couple of years ago and, 20 minutes in, played at double-speed because it was just two guys walking around in the desert.

2. "Elephant," which sounds promising -- a seemingly normal day at high school ends in a Columbine-esque massacre -- but started out with more of these damned shots of people just walking around. I mean ... it was really boring. I quit about 30 minutes in, way before the shooting.

3. "Last Days," which I think is about a self-destructive Kurt Cobain-type. (Yes, that's redundant.) I say "I think" because I just started watching it tonight, and after 30 minutes there had been virtually no dialogue, just a raggedy Michael Pitt walking around the woods, then a house.

Hey, I know I don't "get it." I'm sure there's some art here that's beyond my appreciation. So what. Boring is boring, and this is from someone who liked "Cache" until the end (which ruined the whole movie). According to IMDB, the above three movies form Van Sant's "Death Trilogy." What it doesn't tell you is that it's death by mind-numbing boredom.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Not as bad as procreating with Affleck, but close: "Elektra"

Today, some math.

As you know, I have HBO. Let's consult my cable bill ... HBO: $11.95 a month. Seems a bit high, but OK.

I figure that between us, My Sweet Babboo and I watch at least six hours of HBO a week. ("Deadwood" and "Entourage" for me, plus parts or all of 2-3 movies.) So for the month, that's maybe 25 hours.

That means we're paying about 50 cents an hour for HBO. Ergo, a 90-minute movie would be about 75 cents. But in this multitasking world, I can fold laundry and eat lunch while watching such a movie. So really, the time spent doing nothing but watching the movie is more like 45 minutes, which makes the cost something like 38 cents.

It was close, but "Elektra" wasn't worth even that.

Let's get one thing straight: I knew "Elektra" would be bad before it came out in theaters, when it was out in theaters and when it came out on DVD. I wasn't even going to burn a Netflix rental on it, and I didn't make a point to watch it the first go-around on HBO. But it came back, and -- for once -- we had a DVR list that wasn't packed to the brim. Why not see how bad this is, I thought.

Since I don't want to be a total d*ck, maybe we should start with the positives. Some of the effects and kung-fu action were ... OK. Jennifer Garner's butt looked good. The scenes in the mountains looked pretty. And ...

Nope, that's it, and that's ... what, 10 minutes worth? OK, 12.

Our story has Garner as a reluctant assassin trained in mystical martial arts who refuses an assignment and finds herself protecting a man and his daughther from evil forces. Bwah-ha-ha-ha-ha! This allows Garner to mope around, occasionally dress in is a red bustier and leather hot pants, and throw little knife-pitchfork things around. We also get to see supernatural bad guys who can repel shotgun blasts, kill with a kiss and make animals pop out of tattoos. Spooky!

Now I like comic book stuff as much as the next guy and even consider myself somewhat forgiving when movies of that ilk misfire. "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" wasn't that good, for instance, but it seemed like they gave it a good shot. Here? Um, no. Garner is totally hollow, and everyone else -- including the normally solid Terence "General Zod" Stamp -- is sleepwalking through this mess.

Come to think of it, the effects and action scenes weren't OK after all. What studio made this? 20th Century Fox? I'm going to write them and demand 38 cents. What's that? A stamp costs 39 cents? So I'd lose a penny in the end? Hmmm ... yeah, it's still worth it. You know, on principle.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The more things change, the more they stay the same: "Kingdom of Heaven"

I'm tempted to call this movie an absolute triumph based on one thing: Orlando Bloom not being a complete wuss.

I gotta say, I don't care for the guy. Ever since "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy -- where he was OK -- Bloom has (a) done mostly period pieces in which he can wear strange clothes and (b) been a weenie in pretty much all of them, from "Troy" to "Pirates of the Caribbean." When I saw he was in "Elizabethtown," I was stunned. Still didn't see it, though, and he still looked like a wimp.

But yeah, "Kingdom of Heaven" wasn't bad because of Bloom, and I could it plenty watchable overall. No question it was overdone in parts and dragged in others, and that director Ridley Scott carried over some scenes from "Gladiator." But the subject wasn't bad, and the performances generally were good.

Our story takes place during the Crusades, when Christian Europeans have occupied the Middle East and, more to the point, the holy city of Jerusalem. Bloom is a French blacksmith who becomes a knight and finds himself wrapped up in the politics and manuevering of the Christian leaders of Jerusalem. Ultimately he must fight to defend the city against pretty bad odds. Paging Gen. George Custer ...

Although raised Catholic, I must confess I don't know much about the Crusades. Then again, it wasn't the finest hour for Christianity, what with all the killing of all the Muslims. But "Heaven" gave what seemed to me to be a decent picture of what was going down between the Christian and Muslim armies -- and not just fighting. It also was interesting to see how one King of Jerusalem ruled and what happened when he was gone.

At two hours and 15 minutes, "Heaven" is long but not interminable; "Troy" was worse. The battle scenes didn't start out promising, but almost everything with the siege of Jerusalem -- the preparations and the actual fighting -- was pretty cool. In particular, one bit of strategy by Bloom's character was striking, and I remember thinking, "Wow, that's not bad at all."

We're also blessed (pun intended) with a nice cast: Liam Neeson ("Krull"), Jeremy Irons ("Die Hard with a Vengeance") and an unrecognizable Edward Norton ("Death to Smoochy"), plus Eva Green (not as naked as in "The Dreamers"), David Thewlis (his second decapitation between this and "The Omen") and Brendan Gleeson (an Irish "that guy" we've seen in 293 other movies). Some are better than others, but nobody stops the movie dead.

Then there is Bloom. I can't say he's amazing here, because ... well, he's not. He's really mediocre at best, but like I said, that's a big improvement over his other roles. IMDB says he put on 20 pounds of muscle for this -- apparently bringing him up to an even 100 pounds -- and I thought he looked bigger than usual. It also helped that his face always seemed to be dirty, and not while thinking "that Johnny Depp sure is goofy!" No question that a number of actors could have been a stronger lead as the young knight -- Christian Bale comes to mind -- but if you have to go with an elf, Bloom's pretty much your guy.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

C'mon ... look alive out there!: "Land of the Dead"

When it comes to zombie movies, I try to choose wisely, almost always limiting my viewings to films with "Dead" in the title. It isn't easy.

OK, OK ... if I recall correctly, I've seen "Night of the Living Dead," "Dawn of the Dead" (old and new), "Shaun of the Dead" and "Dead Alive." (The last by Peter Jackson way before he got all Frodo on us, and featuring a priest yelling, "I kick a$$ for the Lord!" and another character uttering, "Your mother at my dog!") All have been good in their own ways, with varying degrees of gore and humor -- a crucial mix when considering the frightening yet hilarious prospect of people walking around after their own funerals.

I've never, however, been hit over the head with zombies as a social cause quite as much as with "Land of the Dead." For all its unevenness and misfires, the movie deserves credit just for giving this a shot. Leave to Mr. Zombie himself to lead the way. No, not that singer-turned-wannabe-director Rob. I'm talking about the dark master, George A. Romero -- the man who truly launched the genre with "Night of the Living Dead."

While the remake of "Dawn of Dead," which came out a year earlier, was more action-packed, "Land of the Dead" focuses on the evolution of zombies from mindless monsters to an organized group. As they assault a guarded city -- slowly ... they're dead, after all -- the zombies serve as an example of the lowest possible socioeconomic class, and living proof (pun intended) that the meek shall inherit the earth. Even if the meek have a taste for human flesh.

It's a little trippy, I admit, but if you're worried that this movie is some big lecture, never fear. We get all sorts of zombies killing and being killed. For every shot to a zombie head, a living human is attacked and nibbled to death ... before coming back to life and joining the other team. It gets pretty gory, as you might expect from Romero, but some of the blood and guts also is funny. You know, if you like that sort of thing.

Billed as Romero's "Ultimate Zombie Masterpiece," "Land of the Dead" isn't that good. I'm not sure I'd call it "good," period. But it was entertaining. The performances? Eh, whatever. Our hero is Simon Baker from TV's "The Guardian," and he's no fun. Our villains -- aside from the flesh-eaters -- include Dennis Hopper as an oft-offended rich man and John Leguizamo as his lackey. Beyond that, it's mostly no names serviceable in their roles as sidekicks, babes and prey.

Like I said, nothing Oscar- or even Golden Globe-worthy here, but not bad for late-night HBO viewing. I mean, really, is there any way a zombie movie can't be silly? We're not talking about serial killers or child molesters here. This stuff isn't going to happen, and that fact makes it hard for me to be "terrified." Now, Dennis Hopper being portrayed as a pillar of the community ... that's scary.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Like I need another reason to hate the French: "Cache"

Don't get me wrong ... I never got on the "Freedom fries" train because, as we know, French fries are from Belgium. But I must confess that those beret-wearing, chain-smoking, no-deodorant-wearing folks generally annoy me. (Although you may recall my exception for Ludivine Sagnier of "Swimming Pool." Whoa, nelly.)

That said, I take a chance on a French film every now and then. Sometimes it works out; "Brotherhood of the Wolf" was a curious and generally entertaining chop-socky/monster movie/period piece. Sometimes it doesn't; "Fat Girl" had good female nudity, but also showed penis (automatic one-star deduction) and capped things off with a bizarre -- nay, dumb -- ending. (Then again, whenever this movie comes up, I can play Buffalo Bill and ask, "Was she a big ol' fat girl?")

(Side note: I just looked up "Fat Girl" and saw the guy wore a prosthetic erect penis in the sex scenes. So I guess that's not an automatic one-star deduction -- it's just like "Boogie Nights." But guess what? The movie still blows.)

I'm tempted to say "Cache" falls somewhere in between "Wolf" and "Girl," but that's a cop-out. So I'll come down on the negative side, and continue cursing the French. It's not hard.

Our plot has a French family discovering that their home is being videotaped, but having no idea who is doing it, or why. The surveillance and other spooky stuff grows more intense, straining relations within the family: dad (who hosts a public TV show on books), mom and teen-age son. Eventually the father has an idea who may be behind this, but that suspicion doesn't turn out to be quite right.

It's not a bad concept. Heck, I'll call it a good one, and I remember the trailers making this movie look pretty good. And it was ... right up to the end. I'm tempted to spoil it to spare you any frustration but (a) this isn't as bad a "Hide and Seek" and (b) I'm not sure what the ending meant, if anything. Damn you French people. (What? The director is German? Doesn't matter.)

It's doubly frustrating because the movie starts well and adequately builds tension even though very little happens. (I'd mention the actors, but they're all a bunch of Frenchies, so who cares?) Hard to imagine that looking at an almost static scene of a home's exterior could be creepy, but when you're watching it on video with the family who lives inside, you understand their unease. Of course, this leads to a really big question: WHO'S MAKING AND SENDING THESE GODDAMN TAPES?!?!?

I'm "yelling" because the answer to this was, well, less than clear, and that's unforgiveable given the set-up. Hey, I can handle confusing movies and intricate plots; I still don't know the whole story with "Syriana" but loved trying to figure out all the connections. But this seems designed for people to leave the theater and go directly to ze cafe, where zey can zip espresso and discuss this high-concept crap. Too bad, but really, what else do you expect the French to do? Work?

Sunday, August 13, 2006

When in doubt, just yell and run around in your tighty-whiteys: "Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby"

After all, that always worked for Olivier and Brando, right?

You know, I shouldn't judge this "movie" too harshly. I'll fully admit I didn't think "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" was that funny the first time I saw it, but somehow I kept watching parts of it on HBO and laughing at several scenes. Perhaps that will happen with "Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," but I kind of doubt it.

Why? Because it kind of sucked.

I have only myself to blame. My gut told me this movie would be bad. I never thought the general idea sounded good, even when I had the chance to watch the filming of a couple of scenes -- Will Ferrell coming out of the pizza place, the highway chase with the state troopers. Sure, movie execs may jump at hearing "Will Ferrell as a NASCAR driver," but I knew it would be a stretch to expect anything particularly clever.

Alas, several critics gave "Ricky Bobby" positive reviews, and that gave me a glimmer of hope that there might be some funny stuff here. And there was ... maybe a half-dozen scenes/lines. Unfortunately, the movie was an hour and 45 minutes, and even if My Eternal Beloved and I spent only $4 each on the early matinee, I felt a little cheated.

Ferrell plays Ricky Bobby, a hotshot NASCAR driver who rises to the top but then loses to a gay French Formula One driver, throwing his life into a tailspin. With the help of his family -- including a wayward dad -- and a good woman, Ricky Bobby gets another chance to reclaim his status as NASCAR's top dog. Cue the "Rocky" music, boys.

Yeah, not the most sophisticated plot, but what do you expect from the former "Saturday Night Live" team of Ferrell and Adam McKay, best known as the heckling audience member during SNL monologues? "Anchorman" was essentially the same story -- top dog loses it all before coming back -- but it had much more genuinely funny and bizarre scenes than this junk. It also had a bunch of laughs right off the bat, while "Ricky Bobby" takes its sweet time to get started -- ironic given the subject.

It actually was sad to see some of the people roped into this mess. You've got three Oscar nominees -- John C. Reilly as Ricky's best bud and fellow driver, Michael Clarke Duncan as their crew chief and Amy Adams as a manager -- and only Reilly seems to be having fun. You also have Gary Cole, who should have been nominated for an Oscar for "Office Space" -- "Peter! Whaaat's haaappennning ... " -- and is probably the most entertaining person here. But he also deserves better than propping up Ferrell in this drivel.

Maybe I'm being harsh, because there were some funny bits here -- Ricky Bobby saying grace, Sacha Baron Cohen as the French guy (with Andy Richter as his boyfriend!) -- but I was left wanting overall. It always seems to come back to whether Ferrell hams it up and yells or actually shows a little wit. Too much of the time, it's the former, and I quickly tired of his redneck accent and all the screaming. But when he was a little more low-key -- not knowing what to do with his hands during his first ESPN interview -- it was pretty funny.

Come to think of it, that was the same deal with "Old School" and "Anchorman." Sure, "You're my boy, Blue!" was OK, but the whole Olive-Garden-waitress-panties-trust-tree-nest thing was hilarious and much more subtle. So yeah, Will, let's work on that inside voice for a while. Even Pacino doesn't yell all the time. Hoo-wah!

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Mary Steenburgen naked: "Melvin and Howard"

I hate to be blunt, but really, wrap your mind around that. It's pretty much all I can think about since watching this movie last night.

It's not that Steenburgen was soooo hot, although she did look good in her mid-30s. It's more that this is MARY STEENBURGEN. You know, the mom in "Parenthood." She always seem to be a nice, respectable woman. Maybe not "proper," but certainly not slutty. Yet here she is, tearing off her skimpy cocktail waitress outfit and storming out of a strip club, with boobs, then butt in full view. Seriously, I'm still not sure it actually happened. No wonder she won an Oscar.

If it seems like this overshadows the bulk of "Melvin and Howard" -- Steenburgen plays neither Melvin nor Howard -- you're right. Heralded as a unique comedy that helped put director Jonathan Demme on the map (eventually spawning the equally hilarious "Silence of the Lambs"), this movie wasn't a waste of time but turned out to be a bit of a letdown.

Our story opens with an old guy (Jason Robards) wiping out on his motorcycle in the middle of the Nevada desert, sometime in the early 1970s. He's discovered hours later by a younger guy (Paul Le Mat) who stops to take a leak on the side of the road and ends up taking the old guy all the way to Las Vegas. After all, the old guy says he's Howard Hughes.

As required when two people are in a car for a few hours, they talk -- well, the driver more than the old guy -- and forge a fleeting friendship that vanishes as soon as they part ways ... or so we're led to believe. While we never see the old guy again, our hero, Melvin, goes about his loser life -- breaking up and getting back together with his wife (Steenburgen), going about his milkman job, screwing up when his family finally comes into some money.

Then, one day -- after Melvin hooks up with another woman and is running a gas station -- we learn that Hughes has died and left 1/16 of his estate to lowly Melvin. That's about $156 million, and as you might guess, most people don't believe Melvin when he says it's because he was nice to that crazy old guy way back when.

It's a cute story, helped by the fact that it's true -- at least the part about a will turning up that named Melvin as a beneficiary. As for that fateful late-night ride shared by the two guys, we have only Melvin's word, and we learn at the end of the movie that the will was thrown out. Poor Melvin, again.

I liked the performances in this kooky tale. Le Mat is a guy who hasn't been in many big movies; there's "American Graffiti" and ... "Strange Invaders?" "Jimmy the Kid?" But he's solid as a hapless schmuck. Robards is in fine form, too, just not around very long. Of course, I've mentioned Steenburgen. Hubba hubba.

My problem is the pacing of the plot. It starts off OK with the two guys in the car, but I steadily lost interest the more I learned about Melvin's life. It's not a long movie -- maybe 90 minutes -- but the middle dragged as Melvin screwed up or got screwed out of something. I wanted to say, "OK, I get it. He's a loser." This went on long enough that by the time the will was discovered, it almost seemed an afterthought, and generally could have been handled better.

But hey, I can't complain too much about any movie that gives us Dabney Coleman as a judge and classic "that guy" Jack Kehoe as Melvin's boss. (Check his IMDB file to see what I mean.) And like I said, it's a cute story that was turned around pretty quickly, coming out in 1980 after Hughes died in 1976. Oh, and did I mention that you see Mary Steenburgen naked?

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

On the plus side, his middle name inspired a great "Simpsons" character: "All the President's Men"

As you may know, my day job involves a slightly older medium than this "Internet" everyone's talking about. I'm talking about Ye Olde Newspaper, and after going through a bit of a rough patch at work recently, it was nice to stumble across arguably the best journalism movie ever made.

In other words, if this doesn't convince you of the power of the press and the good it can do, well, just turn your TV to Fox News and smash the remote.

I had seen "All the President's Men" at least once before, but it had been several years, and like I said, it's nice to be inspired now and then. True, the newspaper world has changed a tad since the early '70s -- more on that in a bit -- but the basic principle stands: reveal the truth, and if you become famous along the way, so be it.

Made in 1976, the movie charts how two reporters at The Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, started investigating a break-in at National Democratic Headquarters and uncovered a much larger conspiracy that led all the way to the President, Richard Milhous Nixon, who ultimately resigned. Not bad in a day's work, huh?

What's great about this movie is that it doesn't try to do too much. We start with the break-in, then meet Woodward (Robert "Sneakers" Redford) and Bernstein (Dustin "Sphere" Hoffman) on the job. No need for personal background so we can be "invested" in the characters. I hate that crap in today's movies. I'm thinking of Will Smith waking up, playing music and taking a shower at the start of "I, Robot." So what? (Seriously, keep the butt off the screen, Fresh Prince.)

Also, director Alan J. Pakula and screenwriter William Goldman don't try to cram the whole arc of Watergate into the movie. The best stuff is at the beginning, when it's far from certain that these two guys -- who didn't have big reps at the Post -- would find the truth. That allows all sorts of shoe-leather work and phone calls, which -- surprise, surprise -- is how you get great stories.

Even at a running time of 2 hours and 18 minutes, the movie moves along briskly. We get the reporting, the debates with editors, the blowback from top officials ... it's interesting, tense stuff, especially since it's a true story. Redford and Hoffman are both good -- the former aloof, the latter cocky, both wrestling with doubt at one time or another. There also are solid supporting players in Jack Warden as their immediate boss, Hal Holbrook as anonymous source Deep Throat and Stephen Collins as a pivotal source.

Best of all, though, is the man who plays editor Ben Bradlee, Jason Robards. Oh, man, is he good. Robards nails the role of "higher-up who seems indifferent but really can zero in on the important stuff." His Oscar is well-deserved. As for the movie, it lost the Best Picture award to "Rocky," and I'm still not sure if that was right. On one hand, you have the defining tale of the fall of an American president. On the other, you have the movie that eventually allowed Mr. T and Hulk Hogan to appear in the same film. Call it a coin flip.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

No matter how many special effects you have, the dude still wears red panties: "Superman Returns"

In the superhero realm, the Man of Steel never did much for me. After this whiz-bang update, he still doesn't.

Oh, "Superman Returns" is all right, mainly when it comes to the effects and action. But none of the characters really jumps out at you, and the plot is sort of half-baked before falling apart in general at the end. It's too bad, really, because there could have been a great movie here if director Bryan Singer has just gone deeper in a couple of places and left some of the other jazz alone.

I'll try to explain, but first, our story: The son of Jor-El comes back to Earth after five years spent searching for Krypton, his destroyed home world. He thought it still could be around, but, um, no. Now he has to adjust to Lois Lane having a steady boyfriend and a kid, plus get back into saving-the-planet mode. At the same time, that ol' Lex Luthor is up to his dastardly ways again, with billions of lives in peril.

That's the long and short of it, but the movie takes an awfully long time for this to play out. Not that it isn't fun to look at along the way. We start with the same kind of credits as in the 1970s "Superman," then get archive footage of Marlon Brando as Supe's daddy. Even the new stuff has a whiff of yesteryear, from the art-deco Daily Planet building to the boring earth-tone clothes Clark, Lois and the gang always seem to be wearing. And yes, Lex Luthor is still bald, this time with Kevin Spacey hamming it up.

The cast is ... OK, I guess. As the title character, unknown Brandon Routh looks a little like Christopher Reeve and more like Peter "Eyebrows" Gallagher, especially as Clark Kent. I'd put him a step below Reeve in the presence department, though. Lois Lane is played by Kate Bosworth -- so cute in "Blue Crush," not so much here. She also suffers compared with her predecessor, Margot Kidder. Her beau, James Marsden, came across as Cary Elwes Lite in the "other man" department, which is kind of sad. Then there's Spacey, who clearly wanted this role but can't hope to compare to Gene Hackman, mainly because Spacey can't decide if he's a smart-ass (like Hackman) or a sadist.

As much as Spacey couldn't commit, the bigger problem is the movie's lack of commitment. To me, there seemed to be a few options that could have made for a stronger, deeper movie:

1. Superman as savior: We get this theme a lot in the movie, but it never goes anywhere significant. The biggest puzzler was this whole "everyone needs me" thing, yet Mr. Invincible still wastes time on petty crimes like convenience store robberies. Um, Superman, they could use a little help in the Middle East, or maybe the Sudan. You busy?

2. Superman as alien: This is where I would have gone, with Superman's origin being questioned more strongly -- especially since he just got back from searching for his home planet. Shouldn't a few people wonder if Earth should trust this guy? But no, everybody loves him, no questions asked. I don't know ... in this xenophobic era, there could have been a story here.

3. Superman as lover: Ah yes ... whither Lois? We see a few examples of our conflicted couple, but between the actors and the script, these scenes don't really sing. I guess it's nice that Lois has moved on, and her kid is cute. But this whole "can a superhero love?" stuff was done much better in the "Spider-Man" movies, and even that wasn't anything great.

Ultimately, "Superman Returns" is a curiosity worth seeing on the big screen, but I'm glad it was a matinee, and it doesn't rise to the level of the aforementioned Webslinger chronicles or "Batman Begins." (A different type of movie, but still.) If we're lucky, though, they'll find a young General Zod out there for the sequel. All together now ... "Son of Jor-El! KNEEL before Zod!"

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

In case the locker room scene in "Top Gun" wasn't overt enough for you: "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang"

Full disclosure: I was predisposed to like this movie.

First, as much as I've chided him in other posts, Val Kilmer generally piques my curiosity -- the guy really has talent. Him playing a gay detective wasn't an exception.

Second, while the reviews were mixed, most acknowledged that this was kind of funky and at least a noble effort. These days, I salute that.

Third, well ... I guess I like Robert Downey Jr. Oh, not for stuff like "Less Than Zero" and "Chaplin." For me, his finest hours were as one of the teen bullies in "Weird Science" ("Bar!") and the weird friend in "Back to School" ("I don't think so, Osborne!"). Sure, those movies came out 20 years ago, but the classics never get old, nor the great roles.

As we know, our man Bobby has had some tough times since then, but he and Val both seem to be having fun in "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," and that goes a long way toward making this an entertaining movie.

Our story has Downey as a small-time New York hood who gets mistaken for an aspiring actor and shipped off to L.A. to learn from Kilmer, the aforementioned gay detective. But wait! Our heroes stumble across a bonafide murder mystery, which also entangles a young woman with connections to Downey. She's played by Michelle Monaghan, whom you may know from "Mission: Impossible III" and who reminded me of that "Grey's Anatomy" chick -- you know, the woman in "Old School" who was from Denver ("Sunshine State ... Gorgeous!") -- only not as annoying.

Also in the mix is Corbin Bernsen. Yeah, Roger Dorn from "Major League!" ("I've only got one thing to say to you, Vaughn ... ") And there's Larry Miller, comedian extraordinaire often seen in those Christopher Guest movies. These guys, plus other competent folks, make a decent cast. As for the story, it's a bit convoluted, but I liked the twists and Downey's narration, especially such lines as "Stop picking at that, it'll just get worse" and "Don't worry, I saw Lord of the Rings. I'm not going to end this 17 times."

Really, Downey and Kilmer --who gets this good line: "This isn't good cop, bad cop. This is fag and New Yorker" -- are both pretty funny, separately and together. And Downey is good with Monaghan, too. The three generally buy into the comedy-noir thing, and I'm a little surprised this didn't turn out to be Downey's second threesome. The first, of course, was "Two Girls and a Guy." Not sure what happened to the pizza place.