Saturday, March 27, 2004

Reel To Reel:
The Ladykillers

How It Rates: ****
Starring: Tom Hanks, Marlon Wayans, Irma P. Hall
Rated: R
Red Flags: Copious F-bombs, Some Sex-Related Dialogue

Preconceived Notions: The Coen brothers return to comedy and snag Tom Hanks to boot. This looks very promising.
The Bottom Line: One of the best caper comedies ever.

Ethan and Joel Coen have proven themselves the plastic men of film, stretching their writing and directing talents amongst goofball comedy (Raising Arizona) to high-brow goofball comedy (Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy) to musical comedy (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) to dark comedy (Fargo) to just plain darkness (Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing).

So when I hear the Coens have a caper film up their sleeve featuring Tom Hanks, it's just another stretch on their rubbery resumes.

And boy, this is some stretch. The Ladykillers is a remake of a classic British caper film featuring Sir Alec Guinness, but transplanted to a Mississippi ghost town which only exists for two reasons: gambling and garbage. A parade of trash barges dump refuge on a heaping island in the river running through town, whose waters also float a riverboat casino.

That casino is the target for con-man professor G.H. Dorr (Tom Hanks), a Colonel Sanders knock-off who's probably conning about his professorships, too. But we're really not sure with the way he performs elevated verbal gymnastics, gliding between poetry and Renaissance music as he cons his way into the home and heart of Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall). She's a no-nonsense churchgoing lady who despises "hippity-hop" music, sends weekly donations to Bob Jones University and lives in the shadow of her late husband, whose portrait perpetually looks down from the fireplace.

Door and his crew have a plan to rob the casino's counting-room, conveniently accessible from Munson's basement, if they're willing to dig. Door's partners in crime include a trash-mouthed homeboy (Wayans) who's the "inside man" at the casino (and whose mouth earns the film an R rating), a blockhead football player who's taken too many tackles, a laconic tunneling expert who could have come from the Viet Cong, and an explosives man with irritable bowel syndrome. Door's cover story for all of this is that they're Renaissance musicians who need a place to rehearse.

The Ladykillers puts a huge weight on Hanks to deliver, and watching him finesse as he finagles is sheer joy. You can watch him work in this film over and over again, like playing your favorite song, and never get tired of it. Hall is a scene-stealer, but wisely, the Coens don't let her make off with this picture. And of course, with everything Coen, the script is the real star, masterfully crafted and full of comic energy, right to the end, even if its supporting players seem a little too exaggerated.

The film is packed with memorable moments and outstanding photography. The soundtrack soulfully blends gospel with that "hippity-hop." You may need to watch the film twice to catch the nuances.

Other critics have complained about this film's cartoonishness, and I would sympathize more if this wasn't a Coen film. Cartoonish qualities seem to be their trademark. Look at O, Brother. Look especially hard at Raising Arizona. Both were embraced for their quirkiness. I can only conclude other reviewers are trying too hard to measure this film against of Guinness' original. Oceans Eleven proved a caper film can be remade with wit, style and new energy. And that's what I see here.

More movie reviews on FrancisP@ge

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Reel To Reel:
Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind

How It Rates: ****
Starring: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet
Rated: R
Red Flags: Language, Sexual Content, Drug Use

Preconceived Notions: A lot of people are going ga-ga about this film featuring Jim Carrey in a serious (but not completely serious) role
The Bottom Line: Well worth the hype -- could be a huge sleeper hit

Many a person would want to get inside Jim Carrey's head for sixty minutes. This film is about as close as you can get, with its dreamlike sequences and sheer unpredictability.

Explaining the plot of this film would rob it of its gush of originality, so I will merely say it revolves around two guys, two girls, a doctor, and a mind-erasing technique to wipe out memories of ex's. But breaking up, as always, is hard to do.

Jim Carrey retreads some of the ground from The Truman Show, playing somebody who's trying to escape from an overwhelming force running his life. Kate Winslet's character seems undaunted by that force, at least we think she is.

Much could have been made of the sci-fi aspects of this story. Some other director might have turned it into another Minority Report set in the year 2033 with a moralizing layer. But director Michel Gondry and company realize this is still a love story, surrealistic as it is. We'll learn the lessons for ourselves and our love lives.

Eternal Sunshine is a great date movie, something to watch with somebody you've known for awhile and you want to hold onto, memories and all.

More movie reviews on FrancisP@ge

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Lion In Wait

Say Martha Stewart's going to jail and people start talking. But talk about Arizona Game and Fish planning to shoot mountain lions in Tucson's Sabino Canyon and people reach for their torches and pitchforks. In my four years of producing newscasts in Tucson, I have never seen an evironmental or animal rights issue draw so much debate. And it all comes down to one question: do we really have to kill 'em?

Game and Fish says there's no other solution. These cats will eat you for lunch. It's only a matter of time before somebody gets attacked.

Moving them won't work, we're told. They're territorial. They can't adapt. They can't be put into a zoo. They can't be rehabilitated.

Yeah, but at least they'll still be alive.

Conservation is part of Game and Fish's mission. It's disappointing it can't live with half a loaf. Maybe the cougars can't survive a move, but at least it's a more natural way to go. It's a solution the animal-rights groups can live with, even if the lions can't.

Game and Fish says it put a five-day hold on the lion hunt so it could listen and understand the issues. But it didn't change its mind. The absolute refusal of this agency, funded by your tax money, to even consider testing an alternative solution on one lion is galling. Just move one. If that lion survives, the experts have some explaining to do. If it dies, well, the animal-rights crowd got what it asked for.

This is not bowing to pressure from some group of wackos. This is forcing a public agency to be accountable to the public. Technically, it owns the lions in the eyes of the law, but don't we as citizens own Game and Fish, too?

Monday, March 15, 2004

Reel To Reel:
Secret Window

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Johnny Depp
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Violence, Language

Preconceived Notions: Can Depp do it again after Pirates Of The Carribean?
The Bottom Line: He does, even though some may feel jerked around a little.

Johnny Depp appears to be channeling Captain Jack Sparrow in the first 20 minutes of Secret Window. Maybe that was intentional, maybe not. I won't say any more than that, because after the end of the film, reflect back on that observation and judge for yourself.

Depp plays horror writer Mort Rainey who's doing more sleeping than writing as the picture opens (been there, done that). Writers' block has left him a mess, as has a breakup with his wife. He's living in the type of dark musty cabin that horror movies just adore. And here comes a deranged fan, John Shooter (John Turturro), who claims Rainey ripped off a short story he wrote. Secret Window is itself adapted from a novela by Stephen King, and Depp at times resembles the Master of Macabre.

As somebody who knows what it's like to struggle through a novel, Depp has got it down cold. I really don't want to reveal any more about the plot, except that we eventually learn a lot more about Shooter, and he's not simply some psycho.

Suspense films have a lot in common with caper films, and the challenge with both is to construct a mystery and/or con that is both beliveable and suspenseful. For the most part, Secret Window succeeds, but there are things you will still wonder about, when you think back upon them in light of the picture's end. However, I don't think you'll really mind them, and it's because of Depp's performance.

More movie reviews on FrancisP@ge

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Do You Know Where You're Going To?

Looks like Diana "Drop In And Out" Ross is going back to jail for not serving her 48-hour DUI sentence all at once... and she'll be locked up in Tucson this time. It sure took long enough for the courts to find out. I had heard off the record a month ago that she had skipped in and out of the pokey after KOLD contacted authorities in Greenwich, CT, where Ross did the time. I only hope the moron who wrote me to complain about us reporting Ross' celebrity treatment is watching. I also wish we could throw her into Joe Arpaio's Maricopa County lock-up for a couple of days. Maybe she could even work on his female chain gang.

Sunday, March 7, 2004

Reel To Reel:

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Malcolm McDowell, Omar Sharif
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Swordplay, Gunplay, A Couple Of Sexual References

Preconceived Notions: Based on a true story, we're told. Filmmakers might cash in on some success of Seabiscuit
The Bottom Line: Entertaining, adventurous yarn about a man, his horse, and the race both of them must survive for honor and money

Many new films can be described as a hybrid of at least two other films. For example, last year's The Last Samurai could be described as Dances With Wolves crossed with Shogun (okay, that was a TV miniseries, but the theory still holds). The Butterfly Effect is Back To The Future minus the funny parts and added to The Thirteenth Floor. And of course, Kill Bill is snippets of other movies remixed.

So the equation for Hidalgo is The Mummy plus The Black Stallion Returns plus Seabiscuit. Here's a mixed-breed film about two mixed breeds: Viggo Mortensen (Lord Of The Rings) as half-Indian Pony Express rider Frank T. Hopkins racing in the ages-old "Ocean Of Fire" with his trusty mixed-breed mustang, Hidalgo. Both know how to go the distance and win cross-country contests.

But one big-shot shiek, who witnesses a washed-up Hopkins in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, is less than impressed with the less-than-purebred horse and rider. He throws down a challenge for Hopkins, and soon our heroes are off and running on a 3,000-mile trek across the African desert.

Hidalgo follows the formula of most race or sports films, where winning isn't the point, it's how you win. Hopkins is a likable character whose cowboy grit and craftiness are just too much for his Arab competitors. Count the number of times you hear Mortensen's character labeled "infidel." A real danger of racism lurks within this film, but it doesn't materialize. A couple of ladies are also in the mix -- one a rich Englishwoman who's backing a rider to get presumably richer, the other a shiek's daughter who is a free spirit trapped in a veil.

The title horse does enough acting for an equine Oscar nod. Perhaps he's jealous of Seabiscuit. His reaction shots are fun to watch. And so is Mortensen, who for all his cowboy skill is always on the verge of the last roundup.

If Hidalgo has a downside, it's that the two aforementioned ladies seem like excess baggage. The filmmakers must have thought a 3,000 mile race through the desert pitting an "infidel" against native Bedouin riders wouldn't provide dramatic material. Get the girls out of the movie, focus everything on Hopkins and his horse, and you've got a real winner.

More movie reviews on FrancisP@ge

Friday, March 5, 2004

Reel To Reel:
Starsky & Hutch

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Owen Wilson, Ben Stiller, Snoop Dog
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Partial Nudity (half a boob), Language, Homosexual Erotic References, Drug References, Comic-Book Violence

Preconceived Notions: Trailer looked promising. But will this just degrade into another Charlie's Angels 2?
The Bottom Line: Better than you'd expect, not perfect, but a heckuva lot better than many big-screen TV series treatments.

Starsky & Hutch is actually fun without degrading into total dorkiness, and it's a lesson many TV-show movies should've learned from frame one. Owen Wilson is the laid-back Starsky, Ben Stiller is pent-up Hutch, and Snoop Dog is faux-pimp Huggy Bear, their smooth tipster. The cherry red Ford Gran Torino stars as itself.

The cop duo blasts around Bay City trying to bust drug kingpin Reese Feldman (Vince Vaughn) who's developed cocaine undetectible to drug dogs. Naturally, it's undetectible to certain other police characters too, or we wouldn't have a picture.

Banter between the title characters made the 1970's series enjoyable. The film smartly picks up on that, as Owen Wilson just breezes through the picture much like many of his other roles. He doesn't so much fit the part as the part fits him. Ben Stiller has more work cut out. Snoop just plays it cool and smooth... and refreshingly restrained from his drug-and-sex persona, looking more like a playa than the real thing.

Starky & Hutch washes just enough 70's nostalgia over us without making us drown. There is the obligitory scene in a disco, but it's more fun than silly. Owen Wilson even gets to riff on the one-hit wonder of original Hutch, David Soul's "Don't Give Up On Us, Baby."

This film knows how much to push and how much to let ride. But one segment may push some viewers a little far -- a scene where Starsky and Hutch interview a football cheerleader in a locker room as she's changing. She seems oblivious to what the two men in front of her are looking at, and it's definitely no wardrobe malfunction.

More movie reviews on FrancisP@ge

Monday, March 1, 2004

Lost In Admiration

When one film absolutely dominates the Oscars like Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King, a lot of great performances deserving of that gold guy go into second-best status. Fortunately, Rings was not nominated in the acting catagories, and deservedly so for what is so thoroughly an ensemble effort.

I've already talked about the two songs from Cold Mountain, but here's my "Shoulda Got It Too" list:

Bill Murray for Lost In Translation -- no knock on Sean Penn, who deserved to win, but something should be on the shelf too for one of the most durable comic actors in the business
Peter Weir for Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World -- directing a sea adventure as realistic as this one could be a movie in itself
Johnny Depp for Pirates Of The Carribean -- As I wrote in my "Reel To Reel" review, he stepped right off a bottle of Captain Morgan (okay, maybe that bottle was in a gay bar) and into this movie