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.

More movie reviews at FrancisP@ge.