Thursday, December 30, 2004

Reel To Reel:
The Aviator

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Language, Intense Scenes Of A Test Flight Gone Bad, Some Nudity (Male), Some Sexual Content

Preconceived Notions: Big buzz. People are saying it's DiCaprio's best picture yet. And I'm a sucker for anything by Martin Scorsese
The Bottom Line: A highly watchable biography, even if it leaves some mysteries mysterious.

The Aviator is the doubly tragic and triumphant story of eccentric mogul Howard Hughes, an innovative maverick who looked for new ways to conquer the air and make movies outside Hollywood's studio system. Before his life was over, he would also have his hands in electronics and casinos. And yet this same man who commanded an empire fell victim to obscessive-compusive disorder and an irrational fear of germs. He could have all the women he wanted, but couldn't find a way to keep them short of paranoid surveillance. I kept expecting Hughes to be carted off to a mental institution, and I believe only his status and money kept him out of there.

DiCaprio carries the huge burden of the Hughes role without straining, right down to his looks. He is straightforward and commanding, yet consumed by his fears. The film opens with a scene from his childhood which will set the stage for his madness. Director Martin Scorsese then flashes forward to Hughes' bloated (for that time) war picture Hell's Angels, a film that almost never got to theaters because of Howard's insistance on perfection -- right down to keeping a huge private air force and dozens of cameras on paid standby until he can get a day with clouds in the sky.

Dabbling in movies seems so odd for a man whose heart is in airplanes, and he's constantly breaking records while looking for the next breakthrough, including the Hercules (aka the Spruce Goose), and a fighter plane that nearly kills him while flying it. The aircraft goes down in Los Angeles in a spectacular crash that's one of the most realistic ever filmed, even though it's CGI.

Hughes' lovelife doesn't stay up either. We see him fling with Katherine Hepburn (Blanchett, in a dead-on match for the greatest leading lady of all time) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale). But between his fame, his flirting, and his phobias, true love is elusive and damn near impossible. I theorize it has as much to do with Hughes' need for control as his OCD.

The picture builds to a climax involving Hughes' fight to become a player in international air travel as owner of TWA. The market is held by rival Pan Am, led by Juan Trippe (Baldwin) and in the pocket of Sen. Owen Brewster (Alda, in what could be a comeback role for him). The air war nearly destroys Hughes, both mentally and financially.

The Aviator is by no means a complete biography, but rather a highlight reel of a man at his peak, a la Ray. One can make a lot of comparisons between this film and Scorsese's Raging Bull, both of which featured men whose public successes were tarnished by their psychological shortcomings. The Aviator lacks the 1980 film's grainy art-house grit, but it still leaves it to us to figure out what kind of man Hughes was, showing rather than telling. That creates several mysterious moments, ones that you talk about after the film and think about for days afterward.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Francis' Five: The Big Tucson Stories Of 2004

Leaving out the presidential election and shockwaves from the war in Iraq, and the year that was 2004 was refreshingly free of major disaster (unlike 2003's Aspen Fire). But at the top of the list is something that may yet devolve into disaster -- one which was highly preventable had the people in the white collars simply done the right thing.

Before we begin, a note on how I came up with the list. It's purely subjective, not based on votes or measures of news coverage or any mathematical formula. In other words, the BCS computers didn't decide it. My criteria is simple: the stories that made the top five are based on the impact they made here in Tucson (and in some cases, around the country) and the impact they still yet may make. So here goes...


We all knew it was going to happen. Bishop Gerald Kicanas telegraphed it for months, and the legal experts said it was the only way out for a diocese facing more claims of sexual abuse than it could afford to settle. So in September, the inevitable happened. The Tucson Diocese became only the second one in the nation to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Many people asked us at Channel 13 about why the Pope wouldn't pick up the tab. Others wondered how the heck the Diocese could claim individual parish funds were seperate and not subject to claims. While there is a spiritual alliance, we are told, there is not a financial one.

And if you buy that excuse, you've been drinking too much holy water.

Other alliances existed, the same ones that kept priest abuse on the Q.T. for decades. I don't believe for a minute the individual parishes should get a pass on this one. Neither should the Vatican, which was late to the party on dealing with it. It's time for the church to come clean and pay up.

But I also have a few words for the victims' rights groups who are complaining the church is trying to drum up sympathy for itself with the bankruptcy filing. I don't think any of them would like to see parishes closed and Catholic schools shut down because one single case resulted in a jackpot judgment of $20 million or more. That's what would have to happen, without a doubt, because insurance companies are dumping the church. It's already happened in Boston, home to Cardinal Bernard (Above The) Law. (This clerical coward is still performing masses in Vatican City, but that's another rant.) Going for the throat, while more than understandable given the abuse and its cover-up, will simply hurt parishoners. It's just not fair.

Hopefully, in 2005, we'll see a solution that dispenses something resembling a fair settlement. The clock is ticking for people to file claims. We shall see how many more victims come forward. But the Tucson Diocese will never be the same. And it's debt load will only be deeper, meaning I fear for what they'll have to slash to pay the bills.


It's a murder case taylor made for a TV movie of the week... or Court TV. A vengeful eye doctor, we are told by police, seeks revenge on a former partner who squealed on him about his drug abuse and took patients away. That partner is a beloved, caring pediatric eye surgeon. A hitman is hired. The job goes down. The bloody body of Dr. David Brian Stidham turns up in his parking lot. It looks like a carjacking... almost.

The mystery unravels. The stolen car turns up. So do clues about the wrath of Dr. Bradley Schwartz and his past. Police arrest him and the suspected hitman, Ronald Bigger, whose hotel room was paid for with Schwartz's credit card. But it doesn't end there.

It seems a lot of people knew too much and didn't do enough. One is Tucson Police Lt. Wendall Hunt, who dated a girl who worked with Schwartz. And we learn about four prosecutors in the County Attorney's office who knew a woman connected to Schwartz -- but don't bother asking County Attorney Barbara "Brick Wall" LaWall about them. Or maybe you should, in court, to try to shed some light on the office's dirty little secrets, which is just what the media in Tucson are doing.

The Schwartz-Bigger case will turn out to be Pima County's biggest trial since the Pizza Hut murder trials in 2000 -- and that one didn't even take place in Pima County. I set the odds at 2 to 1 the trial gets moved to Phoenix, Yuma or (gulp) Prescott. Pinal County prosecutors have already had to take over the case for conflict of interest reasons. A change of venue isn't much more of a stretch.


Kill them or move them. That was the choice state wildlife workers had when they determined cougars in Sabino Canyon were threatening visitors. The park was closed. The plan was to kill them.

Not so fast, friends of wildlife countered. Don't hurt the lions, they pleaded. If anything, we're to blame because we're intruding on their habitat. If they're a threat, just dart them and take them somewhere else and rehabilitate them (as if mountain lions can be taken to Maneaters Anonymous).

The state would have nothing of it, especially after the high liability cost of a bear attack on Mt. Lemmon several years ago. But the complaints grew louder. Finally the state relented after a lion hunt turned up no lions. The operation to capture and move would be more expensive, but maybe people would just shut the hell up.

Finally one lion was caught and taken away after being trapped. Sabino Canyon reopened, albeit with more restrictions and more warnings. Nobody was attacked, no lions were killed -- except for later, when one got out of line in Ventana Canyon after coming too close to visitors.

But the lessons were learned: Tucsonans will not allow Game and Fish to run the animal kingdom like its own personal fiefdom. And for crying out loud, if you're going to shoot lions, you might as well do it when you can catch them in the act.


News 13's Paul Cicala introduced us to a remarkable boy in 2000 -- one determined to beat leukemia, no matter how much it made him suffer. He badly needed a bone marrow transplant, but the odds were doubly against him. He needed an exact match from a registry that wasn't exactly brimming with Hispanic donors.

Had this story aired in any other city, it probably would have sparked a huge outpouring, and then Carlos and his struggle would have faded away. But Carlos' determination touched us all, along with a realizaton that he was facing a problem bigger than himself. If hispanics were underrepresented as bone marrow donors, many more in Carlos' situation would not survive.

The first plea for help produced a record turnout in 2000. Carlos didn't find a match, but other children with leukemia did through his efforts. More marrow drives were held with no matches. Finally, doctors tried a risky treatment using stem cells in umbilical cord blood.

It looked like it was going to work. Carlos improved. His immune system strengthened and it seemed Carlos would fade away eventually into someone different -- a ravenous Arizona Wildcat Basketball fan who would be tearing up the court under Lute Olsen one day.

But then the leukemia came back.

Other cord transplants failed. A last-ditch attempt was made using disesed stem cells Carlos had stored for years. An infection set in and the boy slipped into a coma-like state. Doctors warned it was the beginning of the end. And then Carlos was gone.

The grief reverberated through Tucson. Bishop Gerald Kicanas led his funeral mass, one covered on live television on a Saturday morning. A boy who had touched so many lives while trying to save his own had left a legacy, a lesson, a cause for others to follow.


Nearly a year after it happened, we're still looking into why. In January, two corrections officers were held hostage by two inmates inside a guard tower at the Lewis State prison in Buckeye. A two-week standoff followed, ending on Super Bowl Sunday. One guard was freed about a week before the other, but not before she was sexually assaulted, among other things.

The stalemate frustrated those who wanted SWAT teams to storm the tower and kill anything that moved. The resolution frustrated those who claimed the state caved into the inmates' demands to transfer them to other prisons. But the bottom line -- two officers came out alive. However, state prisons still have security issues to address. Stay tuned.


When wildfire season comes around, everybody girds for the "big one" in the newsroom. Last year, it was the Aspen Fire. The year before, Rodeo-Chediski. Two devastating fires in two years, and this looked like it would be number three.

Lightning started the fire on Mt. Graham, home to millions of dollars worth of telescopes -- one owned by the Vatican. (Funny how the Church keeps coming up in the top stories of the year, eh?) Native Americans hinted it was bad karma -- my term, not theirs -- for building on sacred tribal ground.

The fire smouldered, then raged, and got close. And we all waited for the overrun on the telescopes that never happened. Finally, after two years of bad luck, bad winds and bad timing, the firefighters got a victory.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Reel To Reel:
Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Jim Carrey, Meryl Streep, Jude Law (voice)
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Brief Mild Language, Fantasy Violence

Preconceived Notions: Another children's book gets the Harry Potter treatment.
The Bottom Line: Imaginative, otherworldly, dark-humored fun, even if Carrey hams things up too much.

A Series Of Unfotunate Events is in many ways what the Harry Potter movies should've have been and weren't. But Lemony Snicket, you're no J.K. Rowling. Three of your books would fit nicely into one of hers, and thus the transition from page to screen is much easier. In fact, this film combines the first three books of the Snicket series in a way that is not hurried nor stretched.

I have not read any of the source material, but from what I saw, it's obvious the filmmakers did not have to pledge their loyalty (a la the Potter series) to recreating the books page for page. The result is a film that may lack words, but still resonates with meaning and heart.

Snicket, voiced by Jude Law, narrates the story of the Baudelaire orphans: 14-year-old Violet, who has a knack for invention; 12-year-old Klaus, a bookworm who remembers everything; and Sunny, the baby of the group who, well, likes to bite things. Some of the film's best moments come from her babbling, which is translated for us via subtitles. The children are left homeless and parentless by a mysterious fire, and in steps a banker to shuttle them off to the nearest yet least inappropriate guardians, the worst of which is Count Olaf (Carrey) -- an evil would-be actor who looks like a long lost relative of the Addam's Family -- who's grubbing for the family fortune. Carrey is simply a perfect fit for the role, but I did find a few scenes tugging for laughs. As Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind proved eariler this year, Carrey is at his best when he's not going out of his way to be funny. Before the film is over we will also meet Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly), the warm-hearted reptile expert, and Aunt Josephine (Streep), who's deathly afraid of death, accidents and realtors.

The children rely on their brainpower (or bite-power) to get them out of various predicaments as they try to stave off Olaf. The results are sometimes more sad than funny, but Snicket has tried to warn us. The opening sequence even riffs off of the film's dark humor, inserting a brightly animated sequence called "The Happy Little Elf," which ends abruptly with Snicket's words, "I'm sorry, but this is not the film you will be seeing." Snicket's narration adds a highly enjoyable dimension to the film as the author, a sort of Dickensian detective, guides us through the storyline and themes.

The film takes place in its own world. It crosses a dark, bleak, turn-of-the-century England and America. The cast is dotted with both British and American accents. The costumes suggest early 1900's, but the dialogue doesn't. I finally gave up trying to date the film and decided it exists in the universe of children's books, where imagination is constantly bending the time-space continuum.

Watching Events is like watching a bedtime story come to life, but without the happily-ever-after. It does not overload us with subplots or deep mysteries. And even with Snicket's tounge-in-cheek warnings, the film is not overtly violent or depressing, although I wouldn't take kids younger than six. They won't pick up on the film's messages, although hopefully the adults will. And the film has a lot to say to the older folks: when the kids know what's really going on and you don't, that's really... unfortunate.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Reel To Reel:
Ocean's Twelve

How It Rates: **1/2
Starring: George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Mild Language (some of it creatively bleeped!)

Preconceived Notions: The gang's all back, including directer Steven Soderbergh.
The Bottom Line: Twelve may be the new Eleven, but the numbers don't add up.

Steven Soderbergh proved in Ocean's Eleven that remakes can improve upon their predecessors. He took the original Rat-Pack caper film and infused it with coolness, style, surprises and razor-sharp dialogue. So I wasn't worried about a sequel.

Maybe Soderbergh should've gone back and watched that film before releasing this one, which feels more like a TV-series reunion movie than a slick ensemble con-man flick. Clooney and company are all back (including the woefully underutilized Bernie Mac) and they're still scheming, but their chemistry is overshadowed by scenes way overwritten and a poor structure.

Ocean's Twelve picks up two years after the original, with the casino-job guys split up and working straight jobs. Only casino owner Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) hasn't forgotten about the millions they took from him, and he pays each member of the gang a little payback call. One wonders what took him so long with Ocean. If you remember the end of Eleven, Benedict's thugs were following Ocean and his girl out of the prison parking lot.

Bottom line, the gang needs the get the money to pay Benedict back. Which means they're back to pulling jobs, and since they're "too hot to work in America," it's off to Europe. That begins a series of twists that makes a labyrinth look like I-70 through Kansas. And yes, there's another woman involved. This time it's the cop girlfriend of Pitt's character. And wouldn't you know it, she's got some of the con-man blood.

Eleven worked because it stayed focused on one job. Here, three are operating at the same time. Fellow critic Roger Ebert has called many a caper film a "jerk-around" movie because the audience gets jerked around through plot twists. Normally, I would say that's part of the genre. But here I agree because the plot seems layered in convolution.

Twelve runs two hours and five minutes, and I'm willing to bet it could've been pared down 20 minutes and been better for it. The prequel had a nice brisk pace, and the interaction between the characters grew naturally out of the plot. Here, we have way too many scenes that don't add anything bogging down the film, such as Ocean talking about whether he looks his age and an epilogue ending that is simply a throwaway. I like watching these people, but not that much.

I liked the first film because it was truly an ensemble picture. Here, Roberts and many members of the cast get short shrift and aren't playing to their characters' strengths. And that's largely because Soderbergh adapted a totally different screenplay by a totally different writer -- George Nolfi -- and tried to stretch it to fit the cast. Rule number one, as Ocean might say, a bad fit dressed up with stars is still a bad fit.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Reel To Reel:
Finding Neverland

How It Rates: ****
Starring: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet
Rated: PG
Red Flags: None, really, unless you count "graphic depiction of coughing."

Preconceived Notions: Strong buzz on this film. May be an Oscar contender.
The Bottom Line: Depp does it again in a highly-memorable two-hankie weeper.

In college, I had a drama professor who said Shakespeare was beamed to Earth by aliens in 1566 and told to become the greatest playright in the world. My professor was joking, of course, but he couldn't help concocting that theory given a popular entertainment of the time was bear baiting. How could somebody so eloquent and poetic emerge from such an environment?

I wondered the same thing about writer J.M. Barrie (Depp), author of Peter Pan, in early 1900's London -- a stiff, stuffy society consumed with class and manners. Barrie's imagination is running wild in a time where everybody is supposed to behave themselves. "Where are your manners?" we hear on more than one occasion.

As the film opens, Barrie's new play is opening to yawns. I couldn't really tell if it was supposed to be a comedy or a drama, but one thing's for sure -- it's boring. His producer, Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman), is eating the costs of failure and sucking it up in the British tradition of quiet desperation. But Barrie still needs to make a comeback.

He finds his inspiration in the rambunctious children of widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Winslet), whom he meets in the park while writing. Their imaginations jumpstart his, and he soon becomes a surrogate father to them, engaging in playtime fantasies like an overgrown child, many of which are dramatized with the help of CGI. This comes at the expense of his marriage, and with the smell of infidelity, and worse, raising eyebrows among proper English society.

Barrie's adventures with the young ones form the basis of Peter Pan. The title character's name, ironically, is drawn from the most unchildlike of the Davies children, a boy (Freddie Highmore) still scarred by the death of his father and unable to let his imagination flow like the others. For him, imagination is falsehood, and falsehoods told to him about his father's condition before his death have embittered him. He would rather be an adult, as Barrie aludes to at one point in the picture. But as Barrie learns to set himself free through his words, he inspires young Peter to do the same, and soon the boy is putting his thoughts into words.

Back on the stage, Barrie's new play is coming together, and the bewildered actors are not sure what to think -- pirates, fairies, a boy who never grows up and a man in a dog suit. Remember, this is an age where children's theatre as we know it is not in the dramatic dictionary yet. Our nervous producer is bracing for yet another flop. But Barrie gets an idea -- and he takes a step with the audience which underlines the divide between children and adults of the age.

Finding Neverland is not wringed for tears, but it is honest about loss, love, and pain. It speaks to children and inner children alike, and it reinforces our need for escape, for fun, for play. It is about daring to dream. But it shows, more than anything, how much we really don't want to grow up, even though biology and sociology says we must -- just like Peter Pan.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Reel To Reel:
National Treasure

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Nicholas Cage, Harvey Keitel
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Action Violence

Preconceived Notions: Jerry Bruckheimer tries to score again.
The Bottom Line: Better than the trailer makes it out to be, but nothing more.

National Treasure isn't so much a film, but a game of Clue stretched out over an hour and 40 minutes for a huge ancient jackpot. The clues on where to find it are on the back of the Declaration Of Independence, a document so old and so fragile it's a wonder they're still there given how much the original document has faded over the years. I know. I saw it at the National Archives a few months back.

What surprised me about the film is how much of it works. In some ways, it has the style and the pacing of a good caper flick like Ocean's Eleven. But note I said style. Beyond Nicholas Cage and co-star Diane Kruger dressed up for a DC-style ball, you don't see very much style. And you won't find much characterization or romance either. Not much of the latter is actually welcome, since it steers us clear of Yet Another Action Movie Cliche. But if we're going to talk about cliches, let's throw in The Nerdy Comic Relief -- Riley Poole (Justin Bartha), Cage's gadget guru and right-hand man.

The film opens with a young Benjamin Franklin Gates being told the legend of the lost treasure, protected for thousands of years up until after the Revolutionary War, where Masons left clues on where to find it in such a way that they could and the British couldn't. The Gates family, we learn, is pretty much a laughingstock among scholars for pursuing this treasure -- or trying to protect it.

Fast forward several decades, and Gates is searching beneath the Arctic for a ship containing a clue to the treasure. He finds it with the help of Ian Howe (Sean Bean), a Richard Branson-style thrill-seeker with deep pockets who isn't afraid to break the law. He and Gates part ways when they both find out they need to get their hands on the Declaration of Independence. Howe wants to steal it. Gates does not.

So the chase is on. Who's gonna get to the document first? Who's gonna get to the treasure first? And who's gonna end up with Kruger's character -- historian Abigail Chase, who's pushed into things when the plan to steal the Declaration goes sideways.

For a story obscessed with riches, National Treasure operates stingily, not developing itself any more than it has to. Even the payoff doesn't seem like an extravagant indulgence. But we are treated to a series of riddles and guessing games that propel us from one plot point to another. It's fun to watch, but it's not memorable beyond that game of Scene It? you played with your family the other night.

Saturday, November 6, 2004

Reel To Reel:
The Incredibles

How It Rates: ****
Starring: Voices Of Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter
Rated: PG (but should really be a G)
Red Flags: Fantasy Violence (but nothing really intense)

Preconceived Notions: Pixar has a strong record, but Finding Nemo is a hard bar to reach again.
The Bottom Line: Pixar raises the bar again -- or at least gets high enough to match it.

You can't blame the people at Pixar Animation Studios for wanting to shake off their release deal with Disney. You can't blame Disney for wanting them to stay. Pixar has proven itself more than capable of creating animated adventures that don't need to trade on Walt's name. And their latest one only boosts the studio's clout.

File the The Incredibles in the same folder as Shrek (and its sequel) with the label "kids movie adults will want to see." While the film puts forward a message for kids -- and families -- it also has grown-up sensibilities and the wit and timing of screwball comedy. Its characters simply don't talk like cartoon characters, even if they have those big cartoon eyes.

Mr. Incredible (Nelson) is your standard issue superhero -- busy saving lives, catching crooks, snatching the occasional cat from a tree. But all his superpowers can't protect him from the power of attorney: lawsuits. Save the wrong person, wind up in court. So our superhero and his super-stretch superwife Elastigirl (Hunter), end up in a witness protection program for retired superheroes. No more saving the world. No showing off superpowers.

Incredible is reduced to Bob Parr, a cubicle drone at a tightwad insurance company. Elastigirl becomes hausfrau, raising Dash, a lightning-quick boy, and Violet, his disappearing sister. Mysteriously, their baby Jack-Jack has no superpowers -- yet? The whole family is trying to settle into their repressed identities, but Bob still feels the itch to battle evil. He sneaks out with old crime-fighting buddy Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) to catch crooks and tells the wife he's out bowling. But a super-secret agency will soon bring Bob out of retirement and back into the superhero tights.

The Incredibles is simply a fun movie to watch, with zinging, zowie comic-book action heightened by the James Bond-esque score of Micahel Giacchino. An extra treat: Edna, a superhero costume designer (voice of writer-director Brad Bird) who is clearly channeling legendary Hollywood designer Edith Head.

A cute short film -- Boundin' -- preceeds the Incredibles, and while seeing Pixar's work is a treat, after the commercial reel and the trailer reel, warm-up attractions get to be a little tedious. You'll also get a sneak peak at Cars, Pixar's next major animated release due out this time next year.

NOTE: I do not understand the MPAA's "PG" rating for this film, citing "action violence." The action is intense, yes, it is violent, yes, but it is not any more than some of the Saturday-morning variety. Road Runner cartoons are just as intense. A "G" for this film is entirely appropriate, given this film's target audience -- kids to adults.

Thursday, November 4, 2004

What Kerry Should've Said

How about a break from the movie reviews? Especially since this site seems to be turning into a movie site -- which it was not intended to be. But it evolved into that because movies are one of the few things I feel confident about commenting on with some smidgeon of credibility.

But I can't let this one go. Folks, two months before this election, when the polls suggested President Bush was making a comeback in the polls after John Kerry got his post-convention bump, I told my ardently Republican dad to prepare.

"Get your Tums and Rolaids ready," I said. "If Bush wins in November, you're going to hear non-stop bellyaching."

I had reason to be concerned for the nation's gastronomical health. I'd read letters in the L.A. Times from people who had picked up on the Bush poll lead, whining about how Americans could be so g---damn stupid. It's one thing to take shots at a candidate's intelligence. We've been doing that for years. But when you start attacking the voters, the people who have every right to make one choice versus another, it really gets under my skin.

Democracy is founded on choices -- independent choices -- choices made of our own free will and formulated by our own criteria. That criteria comes not from superficial, shallow ideals of who should be sitting in the White House. People didn't vote for Bush because he had a nice-looking plane, as a Doonesbury cartoon suggested a couple of years ago. They wanted a leader with consistency. They wanted a leader they could trust in the War On Terror. They wanted somebody who connected with their values. Bush was their guy. Kerry wasn't. Shame on the person who believes Bush voters are lowering the national I.Q.

Kerry gets major props from me for doing the right thing and doing it quickly. Only hours after the networks began lamenting another long, drawn out fiasco of a presidential race, and lawyers began salivating at all the potential suits and challenges, the Democrat contender shut Pandora's ballot box with a gracious phone call to the president. Kerry did the math. The numbers wouldn't add up in Ohio. He didn't need an army of attorneys to futily attempt some December miracle.

The Massachusetts senator told the crowds at his concession speech elections were to be determined by people, not lawyers. He also said it was time for America to come back together. President Bush echoed those sentiments in accepting victory.

But Kerry could've gone further. He should've gone further. Decorum and a gracious demeanor prevented him from saying these words I wanted to add to his speech. But some high-profile Democrat needs to say them soon.

"My fellow Americans, I know many of you are not happy with the way things turned out. I know you did not want to see four more years of President Bush. But this is what we have. This is what your fellow citizens have chosen, and if you love democracy, if you love your country as much as I do, you will respect it. You will not treat the president's re-election as the re-ascension of some bastard stepchild. You will not mumble disparaging words about how people of faith vote. You will do your best to minimize your grumbling and and groaning, even though you have a First Amendement right to, because constant carping on the past will not help us in the future. You will 'learn to deal,' as young people are fond of saying. You will continue to stand up for the things you believe in. You will continue to support candidates you believe in. There will be more elections, more opportunites for victory. Just because your candidate doesn't win doesn't give you a license to start questioning the patriotism or mental faculties of your neighbors.

"We have become a nation divided because people can't accept other people making reasonable, legitimate choices we don't like. I realise this is a time of war and lives are at stake. But I would also remind you there was once a country where those who dissented with the ruling political party were thrown in jail or sent to mental institutions. That country was the Soviet Union. We live in America. We don't do that to our citizens. But I am deeply concerned that we are headed in that direction if we do not begin to re-embrace what it means to be Americans. And that means dissent, discussion, and debate are all welcome and encouraged, but at the end of the day we can share a common identity as human beings who have the greatest system of government in the world."

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Reel To Reel:

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Jamie Foxx
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Drug Use, Some Sexuality, Mild Language

Preconceived Notions: Buzz says Foxx is Oscar-worthy in his portrayal of the late great Ray Charles.
The Bottom Line: He is, even if he's in a picture occasionally clouded by flashback storytelling.

Ray is another of those great pictures that almost never got made. Director Taylor Hackford made this biodrama of music legend Ray Charles independently -- with the blessing of Charles himself -- only after struggling to get funding and then a distributor. Universal Pictures picked it up because a studio head happens to be a huge Charles fan.

This film deserved better treatment from the get-go. Only after Charles' passing earlier this year, after reading various obituaries, did I realize how much innovation Ray brought to his craft: the fusion of jazz, country, gospel and R&B. Charles could inject an old standard with new vitality. This cat could swing. And the picture heaps enough music onto you to make you want to get up and dance.

But it's Foxx who sells it. He has Charles' mannerisms and speech patterns down cold, including the head bobbing, a by-product of the blindness Ray developed as a child growing up dirt-poor in Georgia. Foxx worked with his eyes glued shut, and he's no musical greenstick, knowing how to play piano and even contributing a few vocals when he's not lip-synching to Charles' classic tracks.

Ray follows Charles' life from his first steady gig in Seattle up the ladder of success. We flash back to his early exposures to music, his coping with blindness, and the words of his strong-willed mother. We are also exposed to his herion addiction -- at times in graphic detail -- and womanizing. Charles fathered numerous children with numerous women, but for the sake of comprehension the picture focuses on two, his wife Della (Kerry Washington) and backing singer Margie (Regina King). We also get a fair share of Charles' business dealings, including the groundbreaking agreement he struck with ABC/Paramount to own his own master recordings.

All this might be enough to overload a picture, but director Hackford keeps the story moving and grooving with the power of Charles' music, powered by Foxx. Some scenes feel out of place, and there's a recurring nightmare Charles has about the death of his younger brother. But Foxx outshines the faults. As the real Ray Charles said about Fox before his death, "The kid's got it."

Saturday, October 9, 2004

Reel To Reel:
Team America: World Police

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Voices of Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Phil Hendrie
Rated: R
Red Flags: Strong Language, Graphic Violence, Explicit Sex -- all with puppets

Preconceived Notions: A crude homage to the classic Thunderbirds children's show.
The Bottom Line: A causticly funny, brutally offensive, dead-on satire of the War on Terror.

Team America: World Police is vulgar, coarse, racist, stereotypical, homophobic, xenophobic, gross, anti-intellectual, pornographic and utterly, wickedly funny.

Moderates, we have found your flick. No, wait, hear me out.

The creators of South Park borrowed the look and feel of the cult-classic Thunderbirds TV series -- that kids show with the adult sensability -- to create a puppet-driven action spoof that yanks everybody else's chain while pulling the strings. No target escapes: goofball Hollywood liberals, conservative anti-terror ranters, crummy blockbuster movies.

A la Thunderbirds, the title characters are an elite anti-terrorism team, fighting from a hidden base in Mount Rushmore. They zoom around the world in their planes and subs and helicopters, blowing up terrorists wherever they can find them. That's not hard because the terrorists always look like Osama Bin Ladens carrying blinking suitcases and jabbering jibberish laced with "Allah" and "jihad." Problem is, Team America also blows up its fair share of landmarks, too, from the Eiffel Tower to the Pyramids, brushing it off with "Damn, missed."

The team is led by Spottswoode, that mysterious man in a wheelchair behind the scenes who's always drinking something and rolling around in every shot. When a team member is killed, Spottswoode recruits a Broadway actor, Gary, staring in the hit musical "Lease" (you figure out the real-life reference) where he belts out "Everybody Has AIDS" as the showstopper. Spottswoode needs Gary to infiltrate -- act his way into -- the terrorists' organization. The fearless leader's words echo Bush administration anti-terror boilerplate: "The terrorists hate you Gary." "The terrorists are planning a major attack." "I.N.T.E.L.L.I.G.E.N.C.E. reports the terrorists are in Egypt." Yes, I spelled that word right. Team America's intel comes from a giant computer voiced by orally-schizophrenic radio jock Phil Hendrie, who also supplies several other voices in the film. Don't ask me what that acronym means.

Gary reluctantly takes the mission and ends up falling in love with Lisa, the team's buxomly sculpted psychologist. True to action-movie form, it's not long before they end up in bed, with a sex scene that had to be re-cut numerous times to dodge an NC-17 territory. Looks like it still got there.

Team America's shoot-everything-that-walks tactics raise the ire of the fictitious Film Actors Guild -- known by its eye-raising acronym. Its peace-pansy left-wing calvacade of stars -- led by Alec Baldwin, Sean Penn, Martin Sheen, Matt Damon (in a particularly unflattering portrayal), and others -- organize a world conference under the direction of North Korea's Kim Jong Il. He's a foul-mouthed commie-psycho in huge glasses who can't pronounce his L's and who's secretly plotting to blow the world apart with WMD's as Hollywood brings world leaders together. U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix and Michael Moore also get their lumps.

And some knife-edged satire is saved for action films, namely in two songs -- one dumping on Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor and another riffing on the filmmaking technique called the "montage." Just listen to it.

But Team America's main targets are extremism -- far-leftism, far-rightism, jingoism, nationalism, and the arrogance that accompanies them. That makes this the perfect movie for moderates put off by Fahrenheit 9/11 and whatever the right answers it with. If you can put up with the cussing, you'll laugh your butt off.

Saturday, October 2, 2004

Reel To Reel:
Ladder 49

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Mild Language, Intense Fire Behavior, Some Mild Sexuality

Preconceived Notions: Backdraft. Been there, burned that.
The Bottom Line: Backdraft: tribute to fire. Ladder 49: tribute to firefighters.

Ladder 49 could've easily been set in either pre- or post-9/11 America. And it's impossible to tell which. Right there, it earns some brownie points. For the record, it's set in Baltimore. And whereas Backdraft showed intense flame, Ladder 49 shows us intense emotion and brotherhood -- as seen through the eyes of firefighter Jack Morrison (Phoenix) and his commander Chief Mike Kennedy (Travolta), the man leading the charge to save him from dying in a burning building.

Morrison knows this might be it for him. He's just rescued a guy from a towering inferno ("Why is it always the 12th floor?" one firefighter asks) when the floor gives way, leaving him trapped in flame and rubble. As the rescuer awaits rescue, he relives his life: rookie firefighter, hose-man, search and rescue team member, husband, father, member of the firefighter brotherhood. Ladder 49 does not shed any new light on the danger or trauma or heroism of the firefighting profession, but it does let us in on its fraternal bonding. And that's largely why it works. Here are guys who could live right down the street from us, running into burning buildings to save our lives with little regards for their own. That reality catches up with Phoenix's character at one point, and he must weigh whether to keep saving lives or save his own by moving to a desk job.

If you're looking for an effects-driven action picture, this isn't it. But if you're looking for a three-tissue weeper, grab the Kleenex box and walk this way. Ladder 49 milks some sadness, but in a heroic way, not sappily. The ending seems milked for effect too, but give it some points for originality.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Reel To Reel:
Shaun Of The Dead

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Simon Pegg
Rated: R
Red Flags: Gory Monty-Pythonesque Zombie Violence, Language

Preconceived Notions: The Full Monty meets Dawn Of The Dead
The Bottom Line: Goofy, gory fun with a British accent.

If your friends, your neighbors, and the guy at the checkout counter turned into zombies overnight, would you notice? The makers of Shaun Of The Dead bet you won't. And neither does its title character for the first act of the film. It's a sly observation about the monotony of our lives. And it's the setup for what could be the biggest sleeper hit of the fall movie season.

Simon Pegg is Shaun, a British appliance store salesman with a shallow, mundane existance. Go to work, go to the pub, play video games with slacker flatmate Ed (Nick Frost). Shaun's girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) demands more, but Shaun lacks the social competence to even plan a nice evening out. But it's still a step up from Ed, who's unemployed and glued to the couch.

As Shaun and Liz's relationship deteriorates, so is most of Great Britain. Something -- we don't know what -- is turning people into zombies, but Shaun's too clueless to notice as he channel surfs and walks right past the moaning dead. Shaun and Ed don't plug into what's happening until a couple of zombies show up in their backyard, and they finally figure out, hey, we've got to do something to save Liz and rescue Shaun's dear Mum.

Shaun Of The Dead is full of rapid-fire wit, and watching the film requires your full attention to get most of the jokes through the British accents. The film does have a few gory scenes, but even they look they're being pushed over the top for laughs: think the swordfight in Monty Python And The Holy Grail where the knight loses all his limbs.

Director Edgar Wright, who co-wrote the script with Pegg, doesn't go for the Scary Movie approach, finding much more fun in likable aimless blokes trying to save themselves between pints. We know these people and we care about them, especially Shaun's Mum, even if she has a git for a mate.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Reel To Reel:
Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow

How It Rates: ****
Starring: Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Mild Language, Violence

Preconceived Notions: Highly stylish, drenched with CGI, there may be something here if it's not too corny.
The Bottom Line: We have seen the future, and it works.

Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow is the perfect example of CGI being used the right way, instead of the hyped way, as is too often the case now in Hollywood. Nearly every shot in this picture was filmed in a studio, against a blue screen, so digital artists could add the lush, 30's and 40's-era sets and artwork you see here. Not since The Hudsucker Proxy has a film plunged into such stylish a look, which borrows generously from old sci-fi serials, Flash Gordon among them. And you have to admire the lighting -- with shades and shadows resembling old comic books, or the old Superman cartoons, which had a major influence on director Kerry Conran's vision of the film.

The film is so awash in its visual dazzle that the plot becomes secondary. But here it is: Law is heroic pilot Joe Sullivan -- the "Sky Captain" -- and Paltrow his ex-lover and star newspaper reporter Polly Perkins. Both of them are racing to stop monstrous robots (picture an army of Iron Giants) from taking over the planet, at the command of a mad scientist trying to build the "World Of Tomorrow." Perkins is more Brenda Starr than Lois Lane. Sullivan is no Superman, but he's some flyer. Assisting their efforts: a gadget guru named Dex (Giovanni Ribisi) and a one-eyed pilot named Franky (Jolie), who's Sullivan's match in flying skill and bravery. Complicating things: a soured romance between Perkins and Sullivan, and a still simmering one between Sullivan and Franky. Filmmakers have even digitally resurrected Sir Laurence Oliver, playing the mad scientist Sullivan and company are pursuing.

That leads us back to the CGI, which is so seamless, you give up wondering what's real and what's pixels. Ironically, millions of dollars went into re-creating some of the cheap effects of the black-and-white era. I was waiting for a shot of a spaceship with a sparkler burning in the back. But no, that's just not stylish enough. And amazingly, the picture only cost $70 million to make. I would've figured at least twice that.

Even with style, you gotta have substance. Sky Captain has it, what little is required, and purists are going to find all sorts of problems with the plot. But really, are those problems any worse than the ones in the serials this picture draws from. I think not. And the dialogue is loaded with plenty of clever riffs between Law and Paltrow.

Sky Captain is sure to get Oscar nods for Art Direction and Visual Effects. But we will have to wait to see whether this film marks a turning point for CGI in film, much as The Matrix did years earlier.

Saturday, September 4, 2004

Reel To Reel:

How It Rates: *1/2
Starring: Cole Hauser, Tom Sizemore, Robin Tunney
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Language, Violence, Some Implied Sex

Preconceived Notions: An actor gets revenge on photo-stalker. Sounds like Sean Penn's dream.
The Bottom Line: Not a pretty picture.

Maybe a picture tells a thousand words, as that old saw goes, but just one will describe Paparazzi: melodrama -- as defined by, as, "a drama, such as a play, film, or television program, characterized by exaggerated emotions, stereotypical characters, and interpersonal conflicts."

Something's wrong when a dictionary definition nails a review before I've even scratched the surface. And I get this feeling when I hear voiceover narration from the principal character in the opening moments of the picture -- only to never hear it again. That's two strikes right there.

Paparazzi is the dumbed-down, amped-up story of photographers stalking action star Bo Laramie (Hauser), a likable guy with an Aussie accent who's just hit the Hollywood big time with a picture called "Lethal Force." Remind you of anybody? Should I mention Mel Gibson is one of this film's producers?

Laramie has just moved into a nice home in Malibu off the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway for those of you who've never been to Southern California, and good grief, is it gorgeous) with a nice wife and a nice little boy. Only some big, bad, mean guys with cameras can't leave him alone. Laramie asks one of them to stop taking pictures of his boy at soccer practice, and he does -- for about 60 seconds. Laramie confronts the guy again, and this time, does a Sean Penn -- which is all caught on film of course.

For reasons I don't understand -- or maybe I should because this is Hollywood -- the situation drains from mere incomprehenability to inconceiveable insanity as a gang of paparazzi chase Laramie and his family in their car, a la Princess Di, leading to an accident which puts his son in a coma. Now this Mel Gibson clone is gonna have his "Payback."

But wait, these guys just can't stop taking pictures -- even putting tiny video cameras in Laramie's home so they can keep an eye on whether he's after them. Oooookaaaaay. As long as you're going to put cameras around your own domiciles -- or your back, too.

Paparazzi would be likable if were simply believable. It's actually listed as "comedy, drama" in Fandago's description. Remind me where I was supposted to laugh. Was it that accident chase scene? Was it where the guy was feeling up Laramie's wife as she lay unconcious? Was it all those shots of sleazy magazine covers? Maybe I should ask Mel.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Reel To Reel:
I, Robot

How It Rates: **1/2
Starring: Will Smith
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Mild Language, Violence, Brief Partial Nudity (e.g. a side look at Smith's bare butt)

Preconceived Notions: I never read Asimov's collection of short stories.
The Bottom Line: Maybe the filmmakers did, but somewhere in this, a classic got lost.

The three laws of robotics, penned by Issac Asimov, say robots can't hurt anyone, must obey commands, and must protect themselves -- unless doing so would hurt someone. But as Smith's cop character explains himself, rules were meant to be broken. I wish he were talking about the filmmakers, too.

Smith plays Del Spooner, a Chicago homicide detective in 2035 with issues -- some mental, some mechanical. He doesn't like robots, for a reason that will be explained halfway through the picture. He's happily old-school, right down to the remote-controlled (as opposed to voice-activated) CD player in his apartment and his "vintage 2004" Converse All-Stars. But his latest case puts him on the death of a robot designer at USR, U.S. Robotics -- the Procter & Gamble of industrial mechanics. Everybody else thinks it's suicide. Spooner disagrees, and before long, he's onto the theory that a robot is to blame. He's right, of course, but everybody else in the picture, including Spooner's superiors, dismiss it as nonsense. Robots can't hurt people -- it's in the laws. Obviously they can't malfunction either. The simple stubborness of the film's characters to consider the possibility is annoying.

Here we come to a rule of disaster films, one which many action films also adhere to. Repeat after me: "Only One Guy Really Understands What's Going On, But Nobody Will Listen To Him." See my review of The Day After Tomorrow for more on other disaster-film rules. But that isn't so much the problem as the film's disjointed plot. Scenes and characters are pushed together merely as a way to get us from one action scene to the next, a common ailment, or make that a rule, of the genre. Will Smith's character gives us lots of memorable one-liners, but everybody else in the film is one-dimentional. The robots have more depth than most of the people in this film.

How about the effects? Yeah, there are some doozies. But let's be frank here. The more CGI I see, the more convinced I am we are becoming numb to it. The last movie I saw with innovative CGI was Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, hardly sci-fi.

I, Robot has a message for us, but it's thrown in simply as a plot device, not as a moral to base a film around. When we finally see that message, it doesn't tidy up the confusion of earlier scenes. I'm not even going to guess what Asimov would have thought.

If you want to see a truly great sci-fi action film which gets the message and method right, try Blade Runner or Minority Report. It helps that both films were put into the hands of capable directors Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg.

Yes, USR -- U.S. Robotics, is an actual company off the screen. It makes modems. The company's web site explains its name, like the movie, came from Asimov's short story collection. In fact, the company is openly embracing the film, despite the sinister overtones for its celluloid namesake. But I guess the real-life USR won't be making 'bots anytime soon.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

Reel To Reel:
The Village

How It Rates: **1/2
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Sigourney Weaver, Adrien Brody
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Some gross scenes, brief scary violence

Preconceived Notions: M. Night Shyamalan's latest thriller. Can it deliver the scares of "Signs" with the twist of "The Sixth Sense?"
The Bottom Line: Not enough scares. But there's a twist.

I'm reluctant to discuss The Village at length because understanding what I think about it requires giving away one of several twists. Overall, my problem with it is that the foundation seems built upon a set of rules -- yes, those rules you see on the poster, along with some others -- that in the end, don't really matter that much. Yes, the movie has scary moments, but there are far too few of them to classify this in the same league as The Sixth Sense or Signs, which uses silence so effectively. But like the Blair Witch Project, here is a film which is less about scaring the audience than it is about scaring the people in the film's village.

The film gets off to a slow start, set in a rural village in late 1800's Pennsylvania, right down to the archaic diction of its inhabitants (Brownie points to Shyamalan for getting a language detail many films would miss). The village is surrounded by woods, blocked off with yellow penants and a warning -- don't go into the "forbidden woods" or those "who we do not speak of" will attack you and likely the whole town too. We are told a truce exists, like two street gangs who have carved up territory. You stay off their turf and they'll stay off of of ours. Oh and one other thing -- if you see anything red, pick it up and bury it. Those who we do not speak of are attracted to it.

We wouldn't have a movie unless somebody broke the truce. And somebody does. But the town's reaction to it is puzzling. And so are many scenes in the first half of the film that focus more on village life than the creatures who threaten it. I wondered if I had walked into Sense And Sensibility by mistake. However, the reason for those scenes becomes obvious by the end of the film.

I will give you a choice here. You can either stop reading and avoid potentially figuring out a spoiler or go on for more analysis. If you want to read on, highlight the white space below with your mouse.

Okay. You have chosen to enter the forbidden woods.

Like I said, there is much more focus on village life than the creatures. And the reason for this is because of the nature of the creatures themselves, which leads us to another reason why the woods are off limits. Without divulging that secret, I will merely tell you that reason, while understandable, simply seems cruel in the context of what I would consider to be the pioneer spirit of that age. Again, without divulging a plot twist, I will simply say that a much larger danger surrounds the village, and that is the real reason the woods are off-limits.

We are not told how long the village has existed, but we do know its origins. And those origins, depending on how you look at them, seem like either an act of genuine compassion or cruelty by ignorance. The Village raises questions beyond the scope of its presentation about those who live there and what they are thinking. You could make an entirely different movie about their motivations and actions. I don't know what it would be like, but for a hint, maybe you should watch the PBS Series Frontier House.

Saturday, August 7, 2004

Reel To Reel:

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx
Rated: R
Red Flags: Language, Violence

Preconceived Notions: Michael Mann is directing another deep, dark thriller. Can it match of to Heat? And how good does Tom Cruise look in grey hair?
The Bottom Line: The ending stalls, but it's still an enjoyable ride.

Michael Mann's films have a grainy feel to them laced with style and dark wit. Collateral doesn't break the mold. But what starts out as a highly original, unpredictable nightmare trek falls victim to the Hollywood Ending machine. This machine could use a tuneup.

Cruise plays Vincent, an aging hitman with a lot of killing to do and not a lot of time to kill. The plan is to fly into L.A. for one night, ghost five people involved in a federal case against a drug cartel, and hop a plane out of there. Vincent could've rented something from Hertz to get around, but he's the kind of guy who can't leave as much as a shadow.

So Vincent flags down a cab driven by Max (Foxx), who will ferry him through the hit parade. Max is driving a cab as a part-time gig, we learn, as he saves up money to start a high-class limo service. Max thinks he's getting a nice pay-night for driving a notary around to get signatures on paperwork. That illusion soon comes crashing down right into the cab's windshield. Max becomes a driver held hostage and it's going to be a bumpy ride.

You adapt, you evolve, Vincent explains in one of his many philosophical taxicab confessions where he explains the significance of his job and the insignificance of life. These are the film's highlights. Cruise is masterful as somebody who rationalizes the irrational -- "I do this for a living" -- and sees knocking people off as just a job with no karmic downside. Foxx is also superb in his role of a street-smart cabbie who hasn't figured out he's spinning his wheels in life as he drives people around.

One of the most interesting dynamics in Collateral is the relationship between Vincent and Max. Max wants desperately to get away from Vincent, and yet Vincent ends up as his protector on several occasions. Vincent has several chances to off Max, just like he kills several innocents, but the cabbie lives. Max has a chance to sell out Vince during a key meeting with a cartel boss, but instead, he grows a spine.

Up to this point, you have a smart, sleek thriller with a brain and a lot of surprises. But all of that stops when Vince gets to his last hit. Instead of an original ending, Mann goes for a convenient one. A subplot involving the cops seems like a throwaway. And the notion of Cruise's character keeping his hit list on a tablet PC seems strange for somebody who would like to disappear into the night.

Sunday, August 1, 2004

Reel To Reel:
The Manchurian Candidate

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Liev Schrieber
Rated: R
Red Flags: Language, Action Violence

Preconceived Notions: Remake a classic political thriller? Are you brainwashed?
The Bottom Line: Hits all the right chords, but Meryl Streep steals the show.

It's no coincidence the updated Manchurian Candidate was released one day after the end of the Democratic National Convention, striking while John Kerry's and John Edward's speeches about the direction of America are still fresh on the cable-news soundbite machines and in our heads. That only adds to its effectiveness.

The original Candidate, for those of you who don't know, featured Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury in a tale of eastern communists brainwashing a politician in a plot to infiltrate the government. The new version retunes to a post-9/11 world, subsituting a multinational corporation, Manchurian Global, as the bad guys and an implant as the means.

Their sleeper is Seargeant Shaw (Schrieber), Seargeant Raymond Shaw, Raymond... Prentiss... Shaw... -- a vice-presidential candidate who can be manipulated like a light switch. That's when he's not being manipulated by his mother (Streep), a powerful senator who gets what she wants -- all in the name of protecting America, of course. Streep swears she's not emulating Hillary Clinton. Yeah, suuuuurrrrre. Watch her performance and tell me if I'm wrong. Maybe it's not the Hillary we've seen in front of the cameras, but it has to be the woman behind closed doors. Schrieber's character has this constant creepy aura, making him an awfully cold fish for half the presidential ticket. He wouldn't be there without Mommy's help.

Washington plays Captain Bennett Marco, commander of an ambushed Gulf War unit both he and Shaw served in. Marco has had reoccouring nightmares for years of the ambush and knows something more went on there. His search for the truth accelerates when he meets a fellow soldier in his unit who's being mentally destroyed by the nightmares. Much of this film is Marco's picture, a study of a man collapsing under the weight of disturbing facts and diaboloical images.

The new Candidate taps into our fears about globalization and terrorism. A lot of us will subsitute Halliburton for the fictitous Manchurian Global. But it also plugs into some eternal truths about politics -- the manufacturing of candidates, the corruption of leadership through money, and the sideshow spectacle of the presidential race. Even Al Franken plays a darkly comic cameo as a lame television commentator. We have arguably seen, in the current administration, examples of corporate influence. After seeing this picture, you realize it's not that great of a leap to direct control.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Reel To Reel:
The Bourne Supremacy

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Matt Damon
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Action Violence, Mild Language

Preconceived Notions: If the first film is any clue, this should be fun.
The Bottom Line: Mostly action, most of it thrilling. Talk about getting to the good stuff...

The sequel to 2002's The Bourne Identity pares a spy-thriller down to the bare essentials without cutting down to the bone. You have your rogue agent Bourne (Damon) on the lam, you have the CIA after him, along with what's left of the rogue unit he belonged to, and you have a reason to run -- a frame-up where the title character is connected to the deaths of two agents. No time for exotic locales, fancy dinner parties, or glamourous women. We don't even get to see much of Bourne's girlfriend.

What we do see is a lot of running around as Bourne comes out of hiding to find who's after him and take them out. But he's also haunted by that "Identity" he's never quite figured out -- his life before he woke up floating in the ocean, as seen in the first picture. We see flashback clues to that previous life throughout the picture, which hits us with lightning-fast cuts and off-the shoulder camerawork. You feel like you're running alongside Bourne as he makes his way through India, Italy, Germany, and Russia. Nothing is slowed down for dramatic effect, not even a wild fight scene in the first hour of the film. Same goes for a car chase in Moscow. Director Paul Greengrass continues Identity's style of showing you the back alleys of the world's most famous cities.

The Bourne Supremacy is lean and mean for all it does, clocking in under two hours. The action is nearly non-stop. Many movies claim that, but this one lives up to it.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Reel To Reel:

How It Rates: **
Starring: Will Ferrell, Christina Applegate
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Language, Copious Sex Jokes, Comic-Book Violence

Preconceived Notions: A movie making fun of 70's TV news is long overdue
The Bottom Line: Of all the things they could've made fun of, why do they keep coming back to sex?

Anchorman is one of those movies where a fabulous concept gets wasted in its efforts to be funny. Having worked in TV newsrooms for more than ten years, I could tell you stories much funnier than about half the jokes in this film, which range from genuinely funny to just plain stupid. The whole film feels like an extended Saturday Night Live sketch, which probably fits Ferrell fine, but doesn't seem to fit anybody else.

Ferrell plays Ron Burgundy, the #1 anchor at the #1 station in San Diego during the 1970's. (My brother, who lives in San Diego, once told me he wished I could come there to produce newscasts because "the news here sucks." And he was talking in 2001.) Burgundy is one of those anchorpeople with good hair who tells viewers everything about the world around them without knowing anything about it. He is merely a mouthpiece for the teleprompter. You write it, he reads it. That's after warming up with voice exercises we hear in the opening credits. His delivery is stiff and deadly authoritative, just like Ted Baxter or Jim Dial of Murphy Brown.

Burgundy's on-air comrades consist of a cowboy sportscaster, a manic field reporter, and a dimwit weathercaster who is light years away from an AMS seal. All of them share one thing: a lust for living and a chauvenistic lust for ladies. Just keep them out the workplace.

Enter Veronica Corningstone (Applegate), a woman reporter hired by the station solely to promote "diversity," something Ron thinks is a ship from somewhere in history. Corningstone is no token skirt. She wants to work, lives for hard news, cringes at the fluff she's assigned, and wants to get to the network as an anchor -- which means she's a major threat to the newsroom's oinking of Burgundy and company. But not before Ron and Veronica make love, not news.

Anchorman's setting is rife with comic potential -- a battle of the sexes in the women's-lib 1970's when female faces were making progress in local TV news but were bumping up against the boys' clubs. (It would come to a head in the early 1980's, when Christine Craft would sue KMBC in Kansas City after she was demoted off the anchor desk.) Instead, Anchorman goes the direction of a sitcomish sex-comedy, looking for cheap and goofy laughs instead of inspired ones. A few moments are genuinely funny, such as Corningstone and Burgundy trading insults with smiles as the newscast's credits roll (remember when local newscasts had credits?), mics closed and out of viewers' earshot.

But the film ignores or glosses over so much cheese and nostalgia of local TV news from the 70's: the "mini-cam" units, the magnetic stick-on weather maps, the awful chroma-key windows where slides and live shots would be projected from behind, the 8 millimeter film cameras, and the clunky typewriters (even though Ron gets clocked with one). Anchorman doesn't feel particularly fresh, just hormonal. Less testosterone would've helped.

Ferrell consulted with Philadelphia anchor legend Larry Kane prior to filming. I wish he could've doctored this script, too.

Saturday, July 3, 2004

Reel To Reel:
Spider-Man 2

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Action Violence

Preconceived Notions: Trailer looked very promising. Fight scenes are said to be great.
The Bottom Line: Not your average comic-book movie sequel, and just like the first, it rises to another level.

Spider-Man 2 is really a love story with CGI fight scenes. It is also a story of a young man struggling to come to grips with who he is: superhero or student, savior or boyfriend, crimefighter or pizza guy. Peter Parker (Maguire) can't balance his duality as the film opens. He can't hold down a job, hold up his grades, or hold onto girlfriend Mary Jane (Dunst). And, no surprise, he can't catch a break as a photographer from gasbag Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons, in a repeat of his over-the-top performance).

Watching Maguire through this reminds us what put the first Spider-Man above the bar and reminded all of us comic books are really novels with pictures, even though this second chapter is a new twist on an old theme: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wants girl back.

But don't get me wrong. Spidey still has a supervillian to battle. This time, it's Doc Octavius (Alfred Molina), a man transformed into a monster with four mechanical arms when a fusion experiment goes horribly wrong. And there's a best friend and old foe: Harry Osborn (James Franco), whose father was killed by Spider-Man in the first film, and has become obsessed with revenge. Osborn and Doc Oc will eventually make a dastardly deal.

Add in some demons on the homefront. Parker's aunt (Rosemary Harris) could lose her house, and she still blames herself for the death of her husband. Now for the kicker: Spidey is losing some of his spider powers, and Parker can't figure out why.

That's enough dilemmas for two movies, maybe three. Leave it to screenwriter Alvin Sargent, who penned Ordinary People, to guide us through it all with real emotion and heart. Maguire shares the burden, too, and he sells it again. So does Dunst. Comic-book purists are going to miss Spidey's wise-guy comebacks, and they may also roll their eyes at the outcome of a scene where he has to stop a train -- including a shot so obviously symbolic I thought I was being hit over the head with it.

But overall, Spider-Man 2 swings, including its edge-of-your-seat fight scenes. But its action is in tune with its characters. Its story is in tune with their motivations. I can't ask for a lot more than that... except maybe another sequel, which undoubtedly will be made.

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Sunday, June 27, 2004

Reel To Reel:
Fahrenheit 9/11

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: George W. Bush as himself
Rated: R
Red Flags: A couple of graphic scenes of war injuries, but really, it's no worse than what you may have seen already on CNN or Fox News

Preconceived Notions: Disney dumped it. Dems delight in it. Repubs don't want you to see it. It won at Cannes. What is it in this film that people don't want us to see?
The Bottom Line: Like it or hate it, there's a lot of facts that can't be ignored -- selective facts, yes -- and a lot to think about.

DIRECTOR: We're 1:30 away. How's he looking?

FLOOR DIRECTOR: Fine. How's his mic?

AUDIO: Give me one more check.

FRANCIS: Okay, how's this. One, two, one, two. I'm speaking for a mic check.

AUDIO: A little hot. Okay, that's got it.

FRANCIS: Wait, I need to put my hat on.

DIRECTOR (after a pause): You're going to wear that?

FRANCIS (annoyed as he straightens black tricorn hat with white trim): Yes, I'm going to wear that. I consider myself a patriot. Those who came 200 years before us fought and died for free speech, whether we like it or not. It doesn't make a difference whether or not you like Michael Moore or not, he still has First Amendment rights. We all do--

DIRECTOR: Okay, okay, save it for the review. One minute away.

FLOOR DIRECTOR: Cameras, you're going to have to shoot him wide with that hat. Damn, it's bigger than I thought.

FRANCIS: Hey, size isn't everything.

DIRECTOR: Knock it off down there. In fifteen. Black is up.

[Pause... fade up]

It doesn't really matter what you think of Michael Moore as a filmmaker. He's caustically talented by any measure. He knows how to make a point and score points with his audiences. I remember him talking about why he did Roger & Me as a big-screen documentary instead of using some other medium to tell his story of the devastating effects of GM jobs outsourced from Flint, Michigan. Loosely, he said he liked movies, so he made one. But he had to figure out a way to get people to plunk down $8.25.

Thus was born the genre he has mastered: the goofumentary -- a hybrid of 60 Minutes and The Daily Show. Fahrenheit 911 is a two-hour long remix of news footage and original interviews blended with style and Mad-magazine satire like a club DJ. Moore's point is obvious: The American people were duped into supporting the invasion of Iraq when the real threats to America were (and still are) in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. He lays out his interviews and supporting evidence like Mike Wallace going in for the kill, but with a narrative style that sounds like a bedtime story, hyphenated with hilarious use of stock footage and pop-culture riffs. A play on the open to the TV western Bonanza for the war in Afghanistan is a howler. And we get to see numerous behind-the-scene clips of Washington's power players (including the president) being groomed for their close-ups.

Fahrenheit 911 opens with the 2000 presidential election debacle, with Moore explaining how Bush allies tipped the votes in George W. Bush's favor. Conservatives will jump all over this as sour grapes, but watch a little closer, and you will understand Moore is setting the stage for a larger point -- the fate of nations doesn't always rest on what's right or what's honest but what's least likely to disturb powerful connections, corporations, and allies. And there are plenty of powerful connections and allies, as Moore shows ties between the White House and the Bin Laden families. There are connections between Saudi Arabia and the U.S., and the White House and Halliburton, and things that must not be disturbed. And hundreds of enlisted men and women have died to protect those alliances -- not freedom, not safety. Heartbreakingly, we have allowed ourselves to give up freedoms we should be standing up for in the name of security.

Let's pause for a minute right here, before you go writing me off as some conspiracy theorist. Facts are subject to context. Truth is relative. I have no doubts Moore has picked and chosen which facts he wants to present, and not all of them are going to hold up. I spotted one glaring fact error in an interview with a congressman who claimed the U.S. terrorism alert level has gone up to red -- not true. Yellow is the highest it has ever been as of this writing. But this is Moore's movie, not See It Now. And the hard evidence is up on the screen, larger than life, and impossible to write off.

I'm not going to debate the politics of this film. That is another task for other people. But I can't understand why Republicans in Tucson are refusing to mount a full court press against this film if they dislike it so much. We tried to take a Republican and a Democrat to see this film for an edition of KOLD's Reel Life Movie Reviews. The Republicans declined, instead referring all responses to some higher-level spokesman. I can't speak for Pima County's GOP (I'm an independent, by the way), yet if I had a burning desire to confront what I thought were lies and distortions, I wouldn't allow myself to be gagged by my party leadership. And I wouldn't gag my members, either. Let them see this film and take Moore on if it's so flawed.

Democrats and the media take some licks here too. Especially damning is Democratic congressman Charles Rangel's admission that lawmakers don't read most of the bills they pass -- including the Patriot Act, which Moore reads on Capitol Hill over the loudspeakers of an ice cream truck. He also jabs the 2000 Senate -- a place with plenty of Dems -- for refusing to back party members in the House who wanted to voice objections to the results of the presidential election.

Moore goes to great lengths -- almost too long -- to prove he's not anti-soldier. Two of the most powerful sequences in the film involve mothers of soldiers who died in Iraq. And near the end of the film, Moore offers his own ironic tribute to the troops.

Conservative filmmakers are readying responses to Fahrenheit 911. One Tucson author has co-written a book trashing Moore. A conservative film festival is even in the works. Fine, go for it. Michael Moore would welcome you, even if he doesn't want to publicly admit it. But I doubt whether any of those responses will have the impact or smart-alek style of Fahrenheit 911. Conservatives, who have shown how they can set the agenda through Fox News and talk radio, have yet to score a major victory in the arena of independent documentaries. Some conservative Michael Moore may be hiding in an edit room somewhere, but I doubt it.

[fade to black]

DIRECTOR: We're clear. That's a wrap. But come on, did you really need the hat?

FRANCIS (pause): Why don't you ask Michael Moore?

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Saturday, June 19, 2004

Reel To Reel:
The Terminal

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Tom Hanks, Stanley Tucci, Catherine Zeta-Jones
Rated: R
Red Flags: Mild profanity

Preconceived Notions: Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, together again. Sounds good.
The Bottom Line: The premise is a little far-fetched, but it's ultimately heartwarming.

[Special Note: This is not the original review. It got accidentally trashed while I was updating this blog and I could not recover it. However, the sentiments and the star rating are the same in this shorter, re-created version I have submitted below.]

The Terminal is that stray puppy you take in. It chews your furniture. It scratches your walls. But you love it anyway, and you keep it.

That's the way I felt about this film, which re-teams Hanks with director Steven Spielberg. Although it's based on a true story of a man who ended up stranded at a Paris airport, the concept itself is a stretch. Yet it redeems itself with plenty of heart from Hanks.

Hanks plays Viktor Navorski, a man from a non-existant eastern European nation -- not just in real life, but in the film's life as well. His country is in a coup, meaning his visa is not recognized by the U.S. So he is confined to New York City's JFK airport until the whole mess can be straightened out. Viktor comes up with creative ways of getting through the days -- building cracker sandwiches, collecting carts to get money, and even landing a job with a renovation crew.

Frank Dixon (Tucci) is in charge of security. He's trying to help Viktor, but he's thinking more about his career. A promotion is in his future if he can show he's doing his job to the letter. And ice water seems to be running through his veins. He enjoys screwing with one of Navorski's early money-making schemes and offers anything but gratitude after summoning Navorski's help with a Russian-speaking man who's out of control upon being caught with drugs for his sick father. And yet he tries to offer Navorski more than one chance at a way out that's not exactly by the book.

Navorski wins allies among a baggage handler who organizes poker games for unclaimed merchandise, a food-service worker who uses Navorski as a middleman to win the love of an immigration official, and a janitor with a mean streak. The foreigner also has a girlfriend (Zeta-Jones), who has enough troubles with men to warrant a picture of her own. Dixon, we should mention, tries meddling in there, too.

Through all of this, Hanks saves the picture with his strength as a character actor, playing his role with innocence and warmth. Viktor is a immensely likable character, a la Forrest Gump. But while Gump had a fairytale charm to it, The Terminal dampens its charm with improbability, including the very reason why Hanks has come to New York with a can of peanuts in his hand. Some of you will find his motivations charming and heartfelt, and some of you will find it just, well, nuts.

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Saturday, June 12, 2004

Reel To Reel:
The Chronicles Of Riddick

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Vin Diesel, Judi Dench, Colm Feore
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Sci-Fi Violence, Mild Language

Preconceived Notions: It's a sequel to Pitch Black, which I haven't seen. But Vin Diesel is back, and he hasn't missed yet.
The Bottom Line: Diesel's ultra-cool persona and sharp dialogue add spice to what's otherwise another CGI sci-fi film.

Vin Diesel will kick your puny butt and then tell you in that gravelly cigarette voice: "You should have gone quietly." I like him a lot in this picture.

In this sequel to Pitch Black, Riddick (Diesel) takes on the evil Necromongers. As Dench's character explains in the opening voiceover, they will convert you to their religion or kill you. Mostly it's the latter.

Riddick is the only hope of stopping these guys, being the only person left in a race the bad guys fear. But first he's gotta get some bounty hunters off his back and do a little housekeeping on Helion, a peaceful planet in the Necromonger crosshairs. They're quickly running out of targets, as their armies roll over anything faster than American troops in Baghdad. What are these folks gonna go when they run out of places to conquer?

Much of the picture, though, is spent with Diesel trying to get away from the bounty hunters -- or maybe con them somehow as part of his plan. He does plenty of kung-fu fighting, fast as lightning, before slipping back into wise-ass anti-hero mode.

Amusing through all of this is the dialogue -- not just Diesel's, but everybody's. In the old days, you would expect a musical stinger after one-liners like: "You mentioned HER!" It's almost self-parody. But boy, is it fun for the ears.

Vin Diesel has made better pictures than this (XXX ranking as my favorite). But he didn't do badly. However, with anybody else in the role, this would have been just another episode of Star Trek.

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Saturday, June 5, 2004

Reel To Reel:
Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Fantasy Violence, Mild Language

Preconceived Notions: The boy wizard's growing up. J.K. Rowling's novels are getting deeper and darker. Hermione is morphing from cute girl to hottie.
The Bottom Line: Third movie in the series is darker, more mature, but runs like Cliffs Notes of the book.

Pity screenwriter Steve Kloves. He has the gargantuan task of boiling down a beloved children's book into a two-hour film. All right, we'll allow two hours and some change. He must extract from J.K. Rowling's intricate storylines and rich exposition a coherent screenplay. Did we say there was a two-hour time limit?

Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban is a book well suited for film -- a five-hour long film, as one KOLD "Reel Life" reviewer suggested. No way would a major studio release a product that long. One notable exception was Kenneth Branagh's 1996 version of Hamlet, which clocked in at a little more than four hours. People gasped when the first Potter film ran more than two-and-a-half hours. I say you can make a four-hour Potter film that does the book justice and people will still lap it up. But that film will not be made under Hollywood economic mandates, and begging is futile. So the squeeze is on Kloves as well as director Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien). Cuaron seems like the right fit at the right time, as Harry and friends grow out of their kid roles into more complicated characters.

The result is hit and miss. They hit some good stuff. They miss some good stuff. The film suffers from omission, and it's stunningly obvious if you've read the book. I kept asking myself, shouldn't another scene go here? How did we get here? Rather than try to massage some scenes to flow together or take necessary liberties with the storyline, Kloves cuts. It's as if he waved his screenwriters' wand, crossed his fingers and uttered the incantation, "Hope this works." But then again, he's trapped. He has to follow the book as closely as possible, because that's what the audience, largely Potter readers, demand.

In the third installment, a murderous wizard aligned with He-Who-Will-Not-Be-Named escapes from Azkaban prison, and he's looking to kill Harry (Radcliffe). So too are Dementors, shadowy grim-reaperlike spirits who suck the soul out of you. The rest of the Hogwarts gang is back, including Harry's pals Ron (Grint), Hermione (Watson), and Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane). So too are the usual foes: Professor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) and Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton). Michael Gambon steps into the huge shoes of the late Richard Harris as Dumbledore.

Harry Potter and The Wizard Of Azkaban is as visually stunning as its two prequels, and not merely because of CGI spells and magical creatures including the half-eagle, half-horse Hippogriff. There are many moments when Cuaron lets the film breathe and saturate us into the world of Hogwarts. Cuaron works at setting moods to complement the pictures, and that is Prisoner's strength. Another strong point: many moments of dry, understated wit. But one key scene in the third act of the picture is a nightmare, brimming with breathless dialogue that is essential to us understanding the rest of the film, and yet it's going to go over a lot of people's heads unless you have read the book. That's obviously what Kloves counted on.

The fourth book in the series, in production now, will be the acid test. Steve Kloves will face an even tougher challenge condensing the darkest Potter book yet to be made. Plans to split it into two films have been abandoned. Bring it in at under three hours. The clock's running...

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Saturday, May 29, 2004

Reel To Reel:
The Day After Tomorrow

How It Rates: **
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emmy Rossum
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Deadly Bad Weather, Mild Language

Preconceived Notions: Environmentalists (and Al Gore) are latching onto this disaster flick as some sort of a wake-up call.
The Bottom Line: It won't happen. It can't happen. And with director Roland Emmerich at the helm, that's a guarantee.

Disaster films live by a standard set of rules. So rather than take The Day After Tomorrow at face value, let's size it up by how it hits its marks.

1. One guy really understands what's going on, but nobody will listen to him. That guy is Jack Hall (Quaid), a paleoclimatologist who studies the weather, particularly disastrous weather, of the past. When temperatures in the seas shift suddenly and the storms roll in, only his climatology computer models have a chance of figuring out what's going on. Naturally, nobody in the government wants to listen, particularly the Vice President (who bears a nice resemblance to Dick Cheney by accident or design -- you make the call). The VP disses Hall's predictions of global climate change, and he just keeps on dissing. Fortunately, the President (passing resemblance for W.) gets a clue, but only because he got it in a direct briefing from Hall. But as usual, it's too late to do anything by this time but damage control.

2. Some strained relationship must be redeemed. That relationship is between Hall and his son (Gyllenhaal). When the film begins, Hall's marriage seems to be strained too. We're not really sure how strained, but we know Hall is an absentee parent. Dad and son part ways. But before the film is over, we know that the father and child reunion is only a blizzard away.

3. Rely on TV news to underscore the peril. 20th Century Fox flexes its synergistic muscle with scenes featuring live shots from Fox stations in L.A. and Washington. And for good measure, Fox News Channel makes a cameo. Obviously, nobody will be watching CNN when the world ends. Of course, we get the obligatory, hammed up stand-ups from reporters. None of these folks saw the now-famous tape of the KSNW crew who hid under a bridge when a twister tore through Kansas. I have yet to see a film (other than Broadcast News or Up Close And Personal) that gives TV crews something close to the common-sense street smarts of the people I have worked with for 10 years plus.

4. Somebody's gotta fall in love somewhere. That love interest, shallow and forgettable, is between Jake's son and a girl in his school's Academic Decathlon team (Rossum). Together, they're stranded in the New York Public Library amid the disaster after a competition (which we never know if they win or lose, by the way). But hey, at least they're stranded together. And there's a touching scene of them in front of the fire built to keep everybody warm. Why don't they just have sex already and get some serious body heat going? After all, if the world's really ending you might as well go out with a bang [insert rim shot sound effect here].

5. Logic is flexible. Rules can be bent. For Emmerich, we have to add and underline this one. He's the guy who gave us Independence Day, a movie rife with improbabilities right down to the notion that the world could be saved with a computer virus, assuming the killer aliens are running Windows.

Here, the one real annoyance is a serious injury to Rossum's character, which is conveniently ignored until the film needs more action. This leads to a sequence on board an huge empty Russian ship which amazingly steered its way up to the public library on its own, presumably breaking through whatever cars, buildings, debris, whatever is in the way. And that leads to more drama involving wild animals, which are conveniently inserted into the film for no other reason than boarding an empty ship and looking for supplies isn't perilous enough in a blizzard. And let's not forget, Jake warned his son to stay inside or freeze, and the son warned whoever else would listen (there's rule number one again). But both father and son go out again, without even anybody raising one question.

Great liberties are also taken with the science in this film, which we will discuss in a moment, and with the time-space continuum, which somehow is manipulated to get Dad to New York, by car and by foot, in a matter of days in the middle of this superstorm.

6. The effects are the real show. And baby, we've got 'em. Ice cracking. Killer hail. Twisters tearing through Hollywood. Floods ripping through Manhattan like the Red Sea falling on Pharaoh's chariots in The Ten Commandments. Characters chased by frost. Snow drifts three times higher than your roof. That's the part where you nudge Grandpa and say, "Is that what you walked through as a kid?"

7. Somewhere in this, there's a moral. It's preached to us at the end, albeit not in an overtly partisan manner worthy of a propaganda film, but it's there for us to deduce. Gotta stop driving those SUVs. Gotta stop burning those fossil fuels. Or one day, this all could happen.

The truth is, it won't. A paleoclimatologist who saw this film with us for KOLD-TV's Reel Life Movie Reviews told us that without hesitation. If you need more proof, check out The Weather Underground's excellent analysis by meteorologist Dr. Jeffrey M. Masters.

Al Gore and the environmental left are embracing this film because nothing else seems to be working to further their agenda. We love our SUV's. And try convincing somebody who went through record cold in New England this past winter that the planet is getting warmer. The left needs this film to get people talking about living cleaner and greener, which it will surely do. It will provide plenty of ammunition, despite its fictitious science, for critics of the Bush Administration's environmental policies.

But it will not make a dent in our laws any more than Michael Moore's Bowling For Columbine, which failed to toughen gun control policy. Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me will not run McDonald's out of business, even though it has discontinued Super Size Meals (which was a move to simply the menu, not caving in). Movies are meant to entertain us, not spur us to reform. This one widens our eyes with the storm of the millennium, but when the credits roll, it's just another disaster film.

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Saturday, May 22, 2004

Reel To Reel:
Shrek 2

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: The Voices Of Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, John Cleese, Julie Andrews, Antonio Banderas
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Some Adult Jokes (which the kids will get anyway)

Preconceived Notions: It's said to be even better than the originial.
The Bottom Line: It is, with pitch-perfect casting.

Jeff Katzenburg, one of Shrek 2's four producers, is a Disney expatriate. And I'm sure he was giddy about sticking it to his old bosses in this sequel to the fractured fairy tale which lampoons Hollywood and Grimm in equal doses. Shrek 2 is the kind of movie people take the kids to see while secretly desiring to see it themselves.

Picking up where the animated original left off, Shrek (Myers) and Princess Fiona (Diaz) are sliding into their obligatory happliy-ever-after. But then they are called to attend a newlywed ball thrown by Fiona's parents, king (Cleese) and queen (Andrews) of Far Far Away (actually, Hollywood and Beverly Hills). Donkey (Murphy) is back for the journey, having run into relationship issues with his fire-breathing girlfriend.

The royals thought their princess married Prince Charming, and that's where the storybook ending slams shut. The first meeting with the newlyweds falls apart. We learn the king has also made backroom nuptials through a Fairy Godmother (Jennifer Saunders of Absolutely Fabulous) whose nephew happens to be Charming, and there's no welching on the deal. The king hires Puss 'n Boots (Banderas) to off Fiona's ugly groom.

Shrek 2's casting is on the spot, especially so with Banderas, who gets to ham up his machismo. Myers and Murphy continue to deliver what they had in the first film. Walters and Cleese -- now there's a royal couple. But much of the fun derives from the film's non-stop Hollywood allusions (including From Here To Eternity, Ghostbusters, E.T., Hawaii Five-O, Willie Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, Mission: Impossible, The Wizard Of Oz, and many more). And pay close attention to the signs in Far Far Away as Shrek and Fiona's carriage rolls in. In fact, just pay close attention period, because many more jokes lurk in the CGI backgrounds.

Some of the attempts at adult humor feel forced, as if somebody decided the film didn't have enough flatuence gags. But the rest of it brims with energy, and yes, there is a happy ending. This is still a fairy tale, after all.

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