Sunday, December 25, 2005


How It Rates: ****
Starring: Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Marie-Josee Croze
Rated: R
Red Flags: Graphic Violence, Nudity (both male & female), Strong Brief Sex, Language

"You are going to kill them, one by one."

The assignment is deceptively simple: hunt down 11 Palestinian terrorists connected to the 1972 Munich massacre. Israeli Mossad agent Avner (Bana) accepts it for love of country and duty. And yet he finds the more he kills, the more others get killed... and others require killing.

Munich is a microcosm of the cycle of violence enveloping Israelis and Palestinians. It raises many questions from both the Palestinian and Israeli perspectives and forces you to think about them. But Steven Spielberg's newest film is not out to preach. The film will let you draw your own conclusions as you're drawn into Avner's world of revenge killings, collateral damage, suspicious loyalties, and love intertwined with hate. It will also remind you Spielberg is one of film's master storytellers.

The film opens with the massacre itself, told largely through the incredible ABC broadcasts of Jim McKay and the late, great Peter Jennings (who snuck into the Olympic village to get a better view). We even see the erroneous first reports of the hostages surviving. Then comes McKay's heartbreaking words: "They're all gone." Prime Minister Golda Mier makes the secret decision to go after the leaders of Black September, the Palestinian organization who carried out the killings. The scene where she orders the hits is grippingly solemn as she tries to rationalize shedding more blood.

Avner is recruited to head a team of four, including a bombmaker, officially operating off the books. They soon find an informant who leads them to the men they're after. Each hit grows more complicated and dangerous as the assassins devise new ways to rig bombs. And there's also the expense. Killing terrorists ain't cheap. A shadowy bookkeeper scolds, "I want receipts!" Avner must also deal with questions about the informant's organization, a group that doesn't seem to have loyalty to anyone except themselves and the bottom line: "You pay promptly and well."

Tony Kushner co-wrote the script, based upon true events recounted in the book Vengeance by George Jonas. The book, though disputed by many, was also the basis of the HBO Movie Sword Of Gideon. Spielberg's film goes out of its way to avoid propagandizing the Israel-Palestinian conflict. A few scenes feature characters talking about the conflict, but in a way born of the plot and not stapled onto the script for some political purpose.

Munich seems the odd film to open two days before Christmas, the time when we all wish for peace on earth and good will to all. But in its own violent way, this film wishes for it too, demonstrating by example the escalating danger of revenge killing and how nobody benefits -- not the victims, not the killers, not their countries, not their religions. Nobody.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

King Kong

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Adventure Violence and Mild Language

Remaking King Kong is like remaking Gone With The Wind or Citizen Kane, but if you're going to redo an epic, at least put it in the hands of an epic director. Peter Jackson's a fine choice. And he's made a fine film... a very long fine film. At three hours, the new Kong is a director's cut DVD version unleashed into theaters. It's big, bad, and bloated. It wants to be so many things -- art-house romance, period piece, CGI adventure, monster movie -- and by ramming it all in, it nearly forgets its one redeeming thread: the doomed romance of a beauty and the beast.

We don't see Kong himself until more than a half hour into the film. That gives more than plenty of time for set-up: Naomi Watts slips into the Fay Wray role as Ann Darrow, a struggling vaudeville actress looking for work in Great Depression-era New York City. She runs across madman movie director Carl Denham (Black), who's looking for a lead in an adventure picture, if he can ever get it finished. The studio threatens to kill the picture and its runaway budget, so Denham quickly signs up Darrow, grabs his crew, and ships out of New York. They set sail aboard the filthy steamer of an animal hunter bound for Singapore. But really, Denham is heading everybody for Skull Island, an uncharted, unknown land mass filled with restless natives, bloodthirsty dinosaurs and the aformentioned ape.

A romance blossoms between Darrow and playwright Jack Driscoll (Brody), who's writing the picture's screenplay. He gets trapped on board the boat before he can get off and get back to more artistic pursuits. One wonders how the heck a cultured writer hooked up with a snake like Denham, but shh, shh; this movie doesn't need to be any longer.

After the genesis of a romance-at-sea movie, we finally hit the action track. The ship runs aground along the rocky shores of Skull Island. Denham is just too eager to get out and shoot film. Everything goes downhill when the film crew disembarks and runs into one of the natives, who then turn around and kidnap Darrow as a sacrifice to you-know-who.

The new Kong is not your father's Kong and not even your grandfather's Kong, and thankfully, not even Donkey Kong. He's an ape with scars, matted fur and serious anger control issues. He looks like he's had a life, and it becomes all too clear it's a sad and lonely one. Beating up dinosaurs and chewing up human sacrifices doesn't even approach therapy. But then Darrow comes along, and this big lug of a gorilla softens up. So much of this film's value lies in the scenes of Darrow and Kong, whose CGI expressions were molded from actor Andy Serkis (who you will recall set the mold for Gollum in Lord Of The Rings). Kong roars and growls and beats his chest, but he has depth, emotion and a scary charm. Woman and beast read each other like two long-lost souls looking for true love. It's all in the eyes, and Jackson gives us plenty of nuance.

But things get cluttered up. While the ship's crew is trying to rescue Darrow, they run into the dinosaurs, which briefly turns the film into Jurassic Park. Then they end up at the bottom of a cliff infested with huge spiders and snakelike creatures who've probably crawled over from Aliens. Although they're fun to watch, way too much time is spent on them. Eventually Kong is captured and shipped back to New York, things get out of hand again, and we come to the landmark sequence on top of the Empire State Building, where more emotion is milked until Kong meets his demise.

Peter Jackson can handle long films. The Lord Of The Rings trilogy was long because it was a long story. King Kong is long because it wants a lot of depth and a lot of action. Thirty minutes shorter and this film would still have it. Cut the filler scenes detailing the friendship between two shipmates. Toss one of the dinosaur scenes. All of this can go on a DVD. The name of the film is King Kong, not Long Kong.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Tilda Swinton
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Scary Sequences and Ye Olde Swordplay

The opening picture in what could become another Harry Potter-esque series is the stuff of bedtime stories: innocent children, a mystical land, a wicked witch, talking animals and a friendly lion who's anything but cowardly. You have likely heard much about Wardrobe's religious symmetry, but Disney has not made The Lion King Of Kings.

For those unfamiliar with C.S. Lewis' classic novel, four children are evacuated to the country in WWII England to escape bombing in London: the inquisitive and adventurous young Lucie (Henley), the belittled Edmund (Keynes), his big brother Peter (Moseley) and practical big sister Susan (Popplewell). They wind up in the mansion of reclusive Professor Kirke (Jim Broadbent), a man not used to children or even walking about his sprawling estate, it seems.

The children, bored silly, turn to amusing themselves with a game of hide-and-seek, which leads Lucy to hide in a musty, dusty wardrobe in a spare room. But this wardrobe turns out to be the ultimate walk-in closet: a portal into a the world of Narnia, a land in perpetual winter ruled by the evil White Witch (icily and slickly played by Tilda Swinton). Lucy eventually leads the others into the new world, where they learn about a prophecy: they -- four humans -- are destined to defeat the witch and bring peace to the land, if she doesn't kill them first... with the unknowing help of Edmund. He betrays the others, albeit unknowingly, with the witch's promise of power and a few tasty Turkish Delights.

As for the good guys, you have a couple of beavers, a sly fox, an army of half-human, half-beasts and the aformentioned lion, Aslan. He's so warm and furry and friendly, it's hard to believe he can lead an army, much less save his people. Here's where we get to the religious symbolism. I'm not giving anything away by saying Aslan agrees to give his life in place of Edmund's to satisfy a murky law of the land concerning the execution of traitors -- at least it's murky as applied to Edmund. So Aslan is executed by the witch, although the scene surely doesn't have half the power of The Last Temptation Of Christ. You can probably figure out what happens next -- Aslan returns to life the next day, ready to do battle.

But as the film explains it, Aslan's return isn't about messianic power, but rather a knowledge of "deep magic" and some cunning. Watch the film with this in mind, or go back and read it in Lewis' book and think about it. Yes, you can certainly draw parallels, but those wanting a pure Aslan-as-Jesus comparison will be disappointed.

C.S. Lewis strongly objected to a movie of his novel because he thought filmmakers wouldn't be able to pull off all the talking animals without resorting to silly puppetronics. He died in 1963, years before anybody had an inkling of what was to come in CGI. The animals in Wardrobe talk and act with a CGI fluidity that is about as natural as you can get for fantasy beasts. No doubt the digital artists spent painstaking hours studying the movements of creatures to synthesize human and animal instincts.

Like C.S. Lewis' classic novel, Wardrobe is tightly paced. Little needs to go on the cutting room floor, and little does, leaving a film clocking in at a comfortable two hours. If box office results are strong, we could see the six other Narnia books filmed.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Reel To Reel:
Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Scary Sequences and Fantasy Violence

Seeing a new Harry Potter movie is like going to a high-school class reunion every couple of years. You know these people, you love these people, and you see how their lives are changing -- both for the better and worse. Unfortunately for Harry, it's always for the worse. Fortunately for his best girl friend Hermoine (Watson), it's always for the better, as she's picking up teenage beauty to go along with all those smarts. A few snarky Muggles (non-magic folk) might argue you can change anything with a wand, including acne.

For the fourth installment of the series, director Mike Newell picks up the baton from Alfonso Cuaron and continues into deeper, darker territory while still preserving the magic touches Potter fans demand and expect.

The film opens with what could be the wizarding world's equivalent of 9/11 -- the Quiddich World Cup is firebombed by Death Eaters, followers of the evil Lord Voldemort (don't say his name), right before Harry's eyes. But life goes on, and Harry goes back to school at Hogwarts with yet another new Defense Against The Dark Arts teacher, "Mad Eye" Moody (Brendan Gleeson), a nutty exterminator of evil. Harry's dreams reveal something's about to go down involving him and you-know-who, but he can't put the pieces together.

The film contains no Quiddich matches -- even with the World Cup scenes -- but it does host the Triwizard tournament, which I guess you could call Merlinian Gladiators. (Can you imagine Larry Czonka doing color commentary on a battle with a dragon?). Students from two other wizarding schools are being hosted at Hogwarts: the girls of France's Beauxbatons and the boys of Bugaria's Durmstrang. The latter is home to Viktor Krum, a star Quiddich player and chick magnet. Only one wizard from each school is chosen to compete by a magical cup which holds names of those desiring to enter. But for some mystical reason, the cup chooses two from Hogwards: Cedric Diggory, the captain of the Quidditch team, and Harry.

We've got a problem. Not only is the competition too dangerous for underage wizards, somebody else put Harry's name in the cup. But who? However, the rules are absolute. Cedric, Harry, a girl from Beauxbatons and Krum are the challengers. One of them will emerge as champion -- if they survive.

Harry and his pals are growing up. The teenage angst of the last picture is remixed into the frustrations and angst of getting a date as Potter and his best friend Ron look to ask somebody to the school dance. But who? Hermione, she's got Krum. It always seems easier for the girls, doesn't it? Not quite, as you will see.

The latest Potter film stays true to the notion that it's the reality, not the fantasy, that draws people into this continuing story. The Harry Potter saga is really a coming-of-age story spread out over seven (or maybe more) books that just so happen to have magical appeal. The film adaptation of Goblet Of Fire has been distilled down as much as possible without breaking it, but like every other picture in the series, it never matches up to the book in depth, although Prisoner of Azkaban came the closest with its emotional legs. A plan to break this book into two pictures was thankfully scotched, as the filmmakers have been able to slowly drift away from a slavish loyality to the text. The film is still long, at two hours plus, but it's as good as you're going to get.

Reel To Reel:
Walk The Line

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Mild Language, Drug Abuse, Mild Sexuality

Johnny Cash would have ended up another washed-up singer, downtrodden like those he sang about, if he hadn't risen to the challenge of Sun Records executive Sam Phillips, who demanded more than the washed-up gospel act Cash offered him. That music already sold. That music wouldn't sell any more. What did Cash have of his own?

Cash offers him a song he'd written in the Air Force, "Folsom Prison Blues," and instantly, we see a musical metamorphasis as Cash becomes the gritty voice that would influence country and rock music forever. It is Walk The Line's best moment, and it is played perfectly.

Joaquin Phoenix embodies Cash effectively, right down to the guitar, which he learned to play for the role. His performance here isn't as mesmorizing as Jaime Foxx's embodiment of Ray Charles last year, but it's darned close enough. Equally compelling and almost overshadowing is Witherspoon, who is irresistable as the twangy June Carter, a country legend in her own right and Cash's obscession. And yes, both Phoenix and Witherspoon do their own singing.

Cash's pursuit of Carter is the picture's framework, as we follow the Man In Black up the charts and down the spiral of drug addiction. His first marriage to Vivian Cash produces children but little love. Cash is always on the road, apart from family but closer to the woman he pines for, who conveniently is part of the Sun Records tour. June Carter goes through one marriage and then another in an atmosphere where divorce is abhorrent and sinful and, unfortunately for her, public. Cash hurts from the scorn of his father, who still blames him for a saw accident which killed his brother. Carter refuses to have anything to do with Cash off the stage, but she is slowly reeled to him in a tug-of-war romance spanning years. Here are two people who know they need each other but yet can't take it all the way for fear of mutually assured destruction.

Walk The Line is a drawn-out love story more than a musical biopic, and it works like that. Cash's music is given its due, but his performance at Folsom Prison, the live recording which many consider his masterpiece, is almost an afterthought. Chances are you won't mind.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Reel To Reel:
Good Night, And Good Luck

How It Rates: ****
Starring: George Clooney, David Strathairn, Robert Downey Jr.
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Mild Language, heavy smoking

I remember reading Edward R. Murrow's "Wires And Lights In A Box" speech in jouralism school, his address to the Radio And Television News Directors Association where he noted, "if there are any historians about fifty or a hundred years from now, and there should be preserved the kinescopes for one week of all three networks, they will there find recorded in black and white, or color, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live." He spoke those words in 1958. About fifty years later we can reach those conclusions without the need for any kinescopes.

Murrow's words on the state of television open Good Night, And Good Luck, a compelling black-and-white drama recounting, in tightly wound tension, one of broadcast journalism's defining moments: Murrow's unmasking of Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy as a demogague in red-scared America. I watched the landmark 1954 broadcast a couple of years ago at the Museum Of Radio And Television in Beverly Hills. For somebody who grew up on 60 Minutes,20/20 and Eyewitness News, it's hard at first to understand the ground Murrow broke. But television news, remember, was a medium in its infancy, where techniques of interviewing, storytelling and presentation were still in development. Murrow's approach placed film of the junior senator's own words against him and against the facts. That alone might have been enough. But the legendary newsman capped it with a commentary at the end, saying "we will not walk in fear," and "we must not confuse dissent with disloyalty." Those cable news commentary shows can only wish they had Murrow's power and pull.

David Strathairn mezmerized me as Murrow, right down to his four-pack-a-day chain smoking. Strathairn nails the cadence of the CBS newsman's words on and off the air. Even in everyday conversation, Murrow wastes no language. He talks little compared to his writers and producers, but every phrase rings with authority, honesty, and intelligence. Clooney is Fred Friendly, producer of Murrow's program See It Now and the middleman between the newscaster and CBS chief William Paley (Frank Langella). Paley backs Murrow but only as much as the network's bottom line will allow. Paley's payback inflicted on Murrow is Person To Person, a softball celebrity interview program Murrow looks ashamed to be involved with.

Murrow's collission course with Sen. McCarthy begins with a story everybody else is overlooking: a soldier with eastern European heritage is suspected of Communist sympathies without any public evidence to back it up. Murrow looks at the story and realizes this isn't a time to be fair and balanced -- this is a time to expose what appears to be injustice. Give this story to O'Reilly and Nancy (Dis)grace and they'd shout about it for 30 minutes. Murrow let his facts do the talking. Friendly and Murrow soon find they must confront the axis of airbags -- McCarthy himself. The senator appears only through televison and film footage, which is more than enough to underscore his volatility and relentless disregard for the truth.

Good Night, And Good Luck does not try to present the personal side of Murrow, nor does it need to. We get some hints he is a man filled with anxieties, someone more adept at stringing together words than managing relationships. As a sidebar, the film cuts us in on the lives of Joe and Shirley Wershba, married producers who keep their vows secret to avoid CBS regulations. It's hard to tell what they're more afraid of -- being accused of treason or matrimony. Their scenes provide some lightening moments but thankfully don't dull the film's focus.

This is one of the few films, besides The China Syndrome and Broadcast News to treat television reporters with some modicum of respect, a refreshing alternative to the stock characters with stick mics and one-minute standups. It's sure to become required viewing for j-school classes, and when the DVD version hits shelves, please let it include Murrow's orginal McCarthy broadcast.

Not suprisingly, this sure-fire Oscar candidate on many fronts nearly didn't get made. George Clooney pitched it to Warner Brothers, who passed. Clooney and partner Steven Soderbergh got the $7 million in financing themselves and sold it back to Warner Independent Pictures. Shame on the studio head who didn't see the parallels between today and Murrow's time. Good Night, and Good Luck evokes deep thoughts about a nation challenged by the War On Terror, different from the Cold War of the 1950's, but all the same a tool of politicians. It is tempting to brush those parallels aside by saying it's a different kind of war, but really, how different is it on the battlefield of politics?

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Reel To Reel:
North Country

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Sissy Spacek
Rated: R
Red Flags: Intense depiction of sexual harrasment, rape, and language

If it weren't for a melodramatic, over-the-top courtroom sequence in the final moments of the picture, North Country would be a 4 out of 4. So feel free to snip that scene out of your head when you see it coming -- maybe get up and take a potty break. Believe me, you won't miss anything powerful or climactic.

I can safely tell you Josey Aimes, the miner mother played by Charlize Theron, is triumphant in a landmark sexual harassment lawsuit against a northern Minnesota taconite operation in the late 1980's. That real-life suit, settled out of court, forced companies to institute sexual harassment policies. The outcome of the picture is no mystery. The journey there is the picture's emotional core, and it is more riveting than any courtroom drama thrown in as devices to move the story forward.

As the film opens, Josey escapes a physically abusive boyfriend by coming home to an emotionally abusive father (Richard Jenkins) and her stand-by-your-man mother (Sissy Spacek). Her life to this point could be its own picture, with two children by two different men. Her daughter seems to be doing all right, but her teenage son has never met his father and hates his mother's guts relentlessly. Josey's father still hasn't forgiven her for fathering that son as a teenager out of wedlock.

An old friend and union rep Glory (McDormand) talks Jess into a fresh start by working at the mine, which hires women only because the Supreme Court said it had to. Some fresh start. Taconite is a low-grade iron ore, and the outnumbered women are treated lower than the grade of the ore. The place is oinking with so many male chauvenist pigs the lunch room should be filled with troughs. They are 40 and 50-year-old schoolyard bullies.

I won't detail the cruelties Josey and the other women suffer, only to say that they would never be tolerated in any workplace today. The men see it as fun. The women learn not to see it, to shut up, and take it. Only Josey won't. She is dumbfounded her union, the one that collects from her paycheck, the one supposed to be protecting workers, allows the abuse to continue. A plant supervisor is unforgettable as the farmer tending the swine. His northern-Minnesota accented "it's like this, dont-yer-know" mentality masks his own deep realization he is a victim too, powerless to stop the harassment. Eventually Josey enlists the help of a former hockey player turned lawyer Bill White (Woody Harrelson), who warns her own tawdry past will be put on trial.

The picture is a psychological horror film with one indignity piled on top of another, a sort of Passion Of The Christ for blue-collar women. Theron remixes the grittiness she won an Oscar for in Monster, and I don't buy USA Today's swipe she's too pretty to play this role. I think an Oscar more than qualifies. A lot of you will wonder how men can be so cruel to others and laugh at it. Believe me, they can. As this picture rolled into theaters, advertising guru Neil French resigned after telling an industry group women did not make it to the top because "they're crap." Wonder no more.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Reel To Reel:

How It Rates: **1/2
Starring: Keria Knightley, Lucy Liu
Rated: R
Red Flags: Graphic sex, language and violence

Domino could -- and should -- be used to teach film students the wonder of editing on an Avid, and the potential for going overboard with it. The picture is a two-hour rock video comprised of quick cuts, sped-up and slowed-down shots, grainy footage, CGI and just about anything that looks cool.

Cool it is. Cohesive it isn't. Watching Domino is like opening a novel to the middle, jumping back to the beginning, and then leaping forward to the end after you've spilled coffee on the pages. Flashback and fast-forward storytelling works if it underscores the drama (note The Godfather Part II) but here it adds needless complexity to a hybrid of caper film and shoot-'em-up.

Knightly plays the title character, the daughter of a wealthy British family. She is still smarting from the death of her father when she was a child. She simmers with resentment against her mother for uprooting her to Beverly Hills and a phony 90210 lifestyle. Yet she somehow becomes a model, only to dump it for a job more in tune with her rebel nature: bounty hunting. After all, she's been practicing with nunchuks as a girl. She teams up with Ed (Mickey Rourke), a grizzled pro; Choco (Edgar Ramirez), who knows English just fine but likes to speak Spanish only around women; and Alf (Rizwan Abbasi), an Afghan who could've been a suicide bomber in another life.

Domino revolves around a bounty hunting operation gone sideways. Millions of dollars disappears from the Stratosphere Casino in Vegas and Domino's team is sent to grab the crooks and return the loot. Why not call the police? Ahh, that's because things are a little complicated. The money, the crooks and the people associated with them aren't all they're cracked up to be, and hence the story takes as many loops and curves as the Catalina Highway up Mt. Lemmon. And to top it off, the bounty hunters are being followed by a reality-TV crew.

Domino narrates the story herself, as she recalls what went wrong for a police shrink (Liu). I had some sympathy for the title character, but a lot of it got tangled in the film's stylistic devices, including a coin flip to illustrate how life and death is a 50-50 chance for anybody. Given Domino's resourcefulness, I would think the odds would be more in her favor.

Director Tony Scott (brother of Ridley Scott) borrows many techniques from his 2004 film Man On Fire, including the use of floating subtitles to highlight key words and phrases. But that film had restraint. Here, the MTV factor takes over when it didn't need to, as if the story of a model turned bounty hunter needed to amped up more.

It didn't. Domino is based (sort of, the film says) on the real-life Domino Harvey, daughter of actor Laurence Harvey. Domino died earlier this year at 35 of an apparent overdose. Make up your own sick jokes about whether it was sensory overload after viewing parts of this film.

Saturday, October 1, 2005

Reel To Reel:
A History Of Violence

How It Rates: ****
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt
Rated: R
Red Flags: Graphic and intense violence, graphic sexuality, language (nearly an NC-17)

A History Of Violence is the best film I've seen this year. It is film noir in color. It is Greek tragedy in midwestern America. It is Hitchcock in blue jeans and pick-up trucks.

Tom Stall (Mortensen) is a small-town diner owner, a quiet man with a loving wife and two kids, a gentle soul living the red-state life of family values. But then two hoodlums with a sizable track record pick the wrong diner to stick up. Like a beast unchained, Stall foils the robbery in a bloody outburst.

Suddenly Tom is a hero. Reporters flood the town. Everyone's talking except Stall, a man who doesn't want to be thought of as a hero. And there may be a good reason why. Three mob tough guys show up in town. They're looking for somebody named Joey, an old whacker from the past. They think Tom's him. Tom says he's not that man, and most of us would believe that. But one thing still sticks out among the strangers in the black sedan -- how did Tom kill the two hoods in that robbery so efficiently? I'll stop here, because the suspense of this movie rests on whether Tom is really some closet gangster or simply the wrong man in the right town.

Director David Cronenberg paces the movie in brooding stretches interspersed with fits of rage, graphic and uncensored leaving little to the imagination, which only underscore the brutality. Tom certainly is good with a gun, but he comes off as no action hero. Here is a man trapped with another component of his personality which pops out like the Incredible Hulk without the green muscles or stretch pants. And without giving anything away, the film's final scene is a classic.

(Side note: when is Hollywood going to get beyond the stereotype scenes of TV reporters saying something to the effect of "I'm standing at the house of so-and-so..." and then going up to somebody, live on tape, and asking, "How do you feel?" I challenge screenwriters to spend a day with a real TV news crew -- and I don't mean those folks in L.A. -- and get a feel for how the job really works.)

Reel To Reel:
Tim Burton's Corpse Bride

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Voices Of Johnny Depp, Emily Watson, Helena Bonham-Carter, Tracey Ullman
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Some scary moments, but probably should be rated "G-7."

Preconceived Notions: Tim Burton unleashes another Nightmare Before Christmas
The Bottom Line: Witty and dark-humored family flick.

Corpse Bride is old-school: stop-motion puppets in the age of CGI, although everything is so smoothly rendered and minutely detailed I had to keep reminding myself most of this came from dozens of hands and not some rendering farm.

That being said, Corpse Bride is a TV Halloween special blown up into a feature film, one running long on imagination. Again, Tim Burton taps Johnny Depp as his principal player, casting his voice (and his puppet likeness) as Victor, a bumbling 19th century groom who's about to be married off to Victoria (Watson). The match is made more for money than for love, with Victoria's snooty parents sorely in need of cash and Victor's family having it as burgeoning fish merchants.

A disasterous rehearsal has Victor running off into the woods, trying to sort out his feelings. He unwittingly places his wedding ring on a what appears to be a tree stump. Only it's the hand of... da-da-DA!... the Corpse Bride (Bonham-Carter), a half-flesh, half-bone victim of a murderous suitor. Victor ends up in a mysterious land of the dead, obviously taking cues from Mexico's Day of the Dead, where singing and dancing skeletons show more life than the people in Victor's world. Now Victor's got a real problem: he's married to a dead woman and still engaged to a live one. But who's his one true love?

Corpse Bride's strength is its nuances. It's more love story than creepshow, underscored by one sequence featuring Victor and the Bride playing piano together where the music tells the story better than any dialogue could. Nuance is enough of a challenge in a live-action film.

Composer Danny Elfman (another Burton company player) offers a perfectly-matched score, but unlike this summer's Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, I think Corpse Bride could've worked better without musical numbers by the cast... save that Wagner piano piece that's the most memorable part of the film.

Friday, September 30, 2005

the video diaries Debuts!

If you're coming here after seeing the video diaries on Access Tucson... here's what's to come:

OCTOBER 8: "Patriots' Paradise" -- Visiting the historic triangle of Williamsburg, Yorktown & Jamestown
OCTOBER 15: "All Bets Are Off" -- Vegas for cheapskates
OCTOBER 22: "Mr. Francis Goes To Washington" -- You figure it out... before Homeland Security does

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Reel To Reel:
The Lord Of War

How It Rates: ****
Starring: Nicholas Cage, Ethan Hawke
Rated: R
Red Flags: Language, Violence, Cocaine Use, Three Scenes Of Horny Sex

Preconceived Notions: Nearly nil. This movie snuck up on me like a Stealth bomber.
The Bottom Line: A darkly comic, insightful indictment of gun-running.

Nicholas Cage is Yuri Orlov, an underground arms dealer who approaches his business like Gordon Gekko in the munitions trade. Wars are not won or lost but merely transferred, and as long as people are killing each other, they're going to need something to shoot. Cage's character sees it all as business.

Yuri narrates the story consistently -- one of the few times in films where a narrative track works well -- as he recounts how he got into the business: coming to America as a son of Ukrainians fleeing the Soviet Union, working in a faux-Jewish restaurant with his brother and parents, witnessing the mob violence that would introduce him to a twisted version of the American dream. Soon Yuri sells his first Uzi. Realizing he can make it happen, he pulls in his brother Vitaly (Jared Leto), and the two soon are selling guns and ammo to anybody who will buy.

Cage's character stays focused on touting the merchandise and making the sale, rattling off specs for machine guns nearly as fast as they can fire. But he never samples what he sells. Vitaly is there to watch his back, but throws himself away when a client pays in cocaine instead of cash, giving into the addiction Yuri stays away from.

Every version of the American Dream involves a wife, and Yuri has picked out the one he's wanted for years: Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan), a modeling trophy. Yuri easily lures her into a world of riches without telling her where he got them, and she doesn't ask many questions about his business. The one asking the questions is Jack Valentine (Hawke), a tenacious Interpol agent hot on Yuri's trail but without the evidence to make a case. Valentine and Yuri have a couple of powerful scenes together, the fed laying out how evil Yuri is, and Yuri cooly laying out how things really are without a whiff of concern.

Cage's cool persona lifts this film. He talks more like a car salesman than a merchant of death. He could have easily stepped over from Glengarry Glen Ross. Somehow, he knows what he's doing has bloody, tragic consequences, but he does them anyway because he's good at it, because he can. And he does it all with quick-witted charm. What's funny is how he can sell an armored personnel carrier like an Oldsmobile.

The Lord Of War is a strong anti-war film precisely because it doesn't set out to preach. But it's all in how you look at it. Yes, it is a morality play, but we are left to decipher the morality. Is it selling death or merely filling an order? Guns don't kill people; people kill people. And we still sell smokes, don't we? Take your best shot at it.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Reel To Reel:
The Man

How It Rates: **
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Eugene Levy
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Language, Violence, Fart Jokes

Preconceived Notions: Cop-buddy movie in black and white.
The Bottom Line: Has its moments, but could use a few more.

The Man isn't a crime comedy or buddy-buddy comedy or underworld shoot-em-up, even though at times it tries to be one or more of those things. I'm not sure where I would place it if I had to pick a sub-genre. But I know this for sure: as I watched the film, I felt the characters should have been smarter than the words coming out of their mouths.

Crime comedies -- or con-caper films -- work when they feed off situational awareness, when the players have that feeling something isn't right about this job, this guy, that deal, leading them down the slope of complications brought about by trying not to end up like a chump. The Man has some who do, and several who don't. And those who don't simply waltz on through the picture without getting a clue, and it's hard to imagine they could function in their jobs as cops or criminals with that utter cluelessness.

This is a comedy, you will argue, and comedies suspend the rules. True. I merely point out what separates a standout picture from four or five gag reels.

Andy Fidler (Levy), a nerdy dental-supply salesman from Wisconsin, is in Detroit for a conference. He unknowingly walks into the middle of a firearms sting operation, headed by Vann (Jackson), a street-tough ATF agent loosely remixed from one of the principal characters in Training Day.

Fidler is mistaken for an arms buyer in a scene at a lunch counter that's frankly hard to swallow. A contact for the dealer tells Vann to sit at a certain spot in a diner with USA Today. You would the successful crook would choose something other than a favorite paper of business travelers. So Fidler is sitting at that spot with the paper, and our contact assumes he's the buyer. But work with me here now. The contact slides Fidler a lunch bag with a gun and a phone and asks Fidler if he "wants a taste."

Now one of two things should happen here in a well-written film: Fidler should say, "Uh, I have my own lunch, thanks," while passing the bag back, which he does, but not with that line. And secondly, our contact should realize something's wrong here with this guy who's white as a sheet and doesn't get the hint, and move along. The problem is, our contact ignores what should be a basic, cardinal instinct, and leaves Fidler holding the bag. Now it's up to Vann to pull the bust off while putting up with this chatterbox -- and dodge Internal Affairs, which suspects he just bumped off his partner in an arms deal gone bad.

I can't say a lot about the chemistry between Levy and Jackson. Sometimes it works; sometimes it just spins. Maybe that's because Jackson's character is wound too tight and Levy's too loose. A couple of scenes involving Levy's digestive problems with red meat grab laughs, but they're more the exception than the rule.

The Lethal Weapon movies were funny as well as exciting because the characters were always at the top of their game. The Man keeps trying to run plays but keeps losing yardage.

Saturday, September 3, 2005

Reel To Reel:
The Transporter 2

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Jason Statham, Amber Valletta, Hunter Clary
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Mild Language, Violence, Some Slutty Sensuality

Preconceived Notions: Going places, shooting things -- more of the same?
The Bottom Line: Buckle up or fly out of your seat.

The most intriguing aspect of The Transporter 2 isn't its lack of respect for the laws of physics or strict adherence to the Movie Mob Beatdown Rule (i.e. -- a group of bad guys will always attack the good guy one at a time, never at once, thus allowing the good guy more time to show off his skills). Frank Martin (Statham), the title character, always seems to get his job done without doing major damage to his geared-up Audi or his neatly-pressed suits. You wonder what this guy pays for dry cleaning and automotive repairs. At least James Bond wrecked an Aston Martin in Goldfinger.

The sequel to the 2002 hit continues to blend Bond with the renegade coolness of XXX and the kung-fu of The Matrix or Kiss Of The Dragon. But let's add in a few more wrinkles -- no, not to Martin's suit. Stage a few fight scenes rivaling Jackie Chan's work, notably one involving a fire hose. And that Audi -- could it have possibly rolled from the same plant as the Bluesmobile? One scene will convince you.

Here's what's going on. Frank -- an ex special-forces ace -- is taking a break from running anything you don't want intercepted or arrested. The second film moves him from France to Florida, where's he's chauffeuring the young son of a drug-enforcement officer (Matthew Modine) and his estranged wife. Frank, not one for attachments, has befriended the boy in a by-the-book manner down to a riddle game they play in the car.

The boy becomes the prime target of mercenary-for-hire Gianni (Alessandro Gassman) and his deadly slutty bed-buddy Lola (Kate Nauta). She's the answer to that question, "What if the Victoria's Secret catalog merged with Soldier Of Fortune?" A trip to the pediatrician goes wrong, and the boy lands in the hands of the bad guys, and Frank is on a mission to get the kid back safe. "Keep your promises" is one of Frank's rules. I forgot what the others were, but I know they include "don't scratch the car."

The rest of the picture jumps from fights to chases to confrontations to close calls as we throw in another wrinkle involving a killer injection which I won't elaborate on. A few sidebar scenes involve returning character Tarconi (Francois Berleand), a French cop whose visit to Frank turns into a working vacation at the Miami Police Department. Frank nearly falls into a romantic relationship with the boy's mother (Valleta) in a scene where the film shows some promise of breaking a mold or falling into a cliche, but it neatly sidesteps the issue.

The Transporter is not meant to be analyzed; it's meant to be enjoyed, even as you puzzle why a roomful of feds, a garage full of thugs and a vixen full of automatic weapons can't take Frank down. And for that, it's a fun ride, which is really all we ask from an action movie. Speaking of rides, can I lease that Audi?

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Reel To Reel:
Four Brothers

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Andre Benjamin, Tyrese Gibson
Rated: R
Red Flags: Strong Language, Graphic Intense Violence, One Sex Scene

Preconceived Notions: Mystic River meets Boyz 'N The Hood
The Bottom Line: A solid, street-wise shoot-'em-up.

Director John Singleton, who broke out with Boys 'N The Hood, goes back to the 'hood for a revenge film with a gansta twist. Four Brothers could have been called Rejects II Society if they hadn't been adopted by a loving Irish-Catholic mother who's fostered dozens of problem kids. Bobby (Wahlberg) is the tough guy eager to carry out pavement justice. Angel (Gibson) is the military man who can handle his own. Jeremiah (Benjamin) has got a wife, kids, a plans for a high-end loft development. And Jack (Garrett Hedlund) has been rocking out, probably with the sex and drugs part in there too. Two are white, two are black.

The film, set in crime-plagued Detroit, wastes no time in getting us to what brings these four back together: the murder of dear Mother in a corner-store robbery. The cops tell Bobby it's a robbery, be cool, we're on it. Growing up on the mean streets, Bobby's not convinced the cops give a damn. So he and the guys take up their own investigation, true to that ghetto credo, "Pray for a peace, work it for justice." What the four brothers find is something much more complicated than two hoodlums pulling a small-time job.

Four Brothers' plot twists seem a little too complex to be believable. But in the manner of the Leathal Weapon series, we really don't care because we're too busy rooting for the good guys to get hung up on each rung of the ladder. Singleton keeps the focus on the family and the action, including a whopper of a gunfight and two intense chase sequences.

Another highlight -- the film's Motown soundtrack, which reminded me of the cool soulfulness of Jackie Brown, although Quentin Tarantino could have made this film a more stylish blaxploitation flick. But I digress. Just sit down and roll.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Reel To Reel:

How It Rates: **1/2
Starring: Josh Lucas, Jessica Biel, Jamie Foxx
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Language, Lotsa Explosions

Preconceived Notions: Top Gun meets 2001 meets Dr. Strangelove.
The Bottom Line: Fun, if you like Jamie Foxx -- and explosions.

Stealth is a perfect example of a film that's more thrill ride than film. Maybe we should just boil off the subplots, half the dialogue, and just have 90 minutes of three flying aces chasing a haywire drone around the globe. Now you're on to something.

Here's the story: our three Navy pilots (Lucas, Biel, Foxx) are the best of the best in the world of the near future, fighting terrorism around the globe from the confines of souped-up fighters with razor-sharp precision. Luke Skywalker's proton torpedo down the exhaust port of the Death Star looks like kid stuff. Need an Al-Qaida hideout taken out? Call in the air support. They'll fix the problem before you can say "shock and awe."

Now add a fourth member of the team: EDI, but you can call him Eddy. Eddy's an experimental drone fighter. Eddy's got artifical intelligence. Eddy's got the moves and a taste for hard rock -- downloaded from the Internet which is sure to get Eddy in trouble with the RIAA. Eddy's got a voice like HAL 9000 crossed with I.N.T.E.L.L.E.G.E.N.C.E. from Team America: World Police. And Eddy needs targets.

Just like your computer, Eddy doesn't take lightning strikes too kindly. You would think somebody designing the most advanced electronic fighter ever would remember the surge protector. A blast of 1.21 gigawatts rewires Eddy's electronic brain and turns him into one mean machine, disobeying orders and shooting whatever the heck he wants. Somebody's gotta get Eddy back to the hanger before he blows up the planet.

All of this would be more fun if you left out some excess baggage, mainly Lucas and Biel's Mandatory Action Movie Needless Romance and Jamie Foxx's ladies-man pilot act -- although I liked it. But hey Jamie, Hitch is two screens down and Will Smith got there first.

With that stuff gone, we're left with just one problem. Eddy. He's a cool drone, but he's got a girly-man voice. How about something colder and detached like the computer voice you hear on National Weather Service radio? The one that sounds like he's from Norway, especially on the word "cloudy." Now that's scary.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Reel To Reel:
Charlie And The Chocolate Factory

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Intense Thematic Material (i.e. kids getting all sorts of yucky come-uppances)

Preconceived Notions: Looks trippier than the Gene Wilder original -- and with Tim Burton to boot.
The Bottom Line: A sweet(er) treat.

Note from your blogmaster: The originial review published here accidentally got blown away. I couldn't recover it so I'm going to try to recreate it. Another reminder to me to watch the use of the "post" button!

Roald Dahl hated the original 1971 version of his classic children's novel -- mainly because Warner Bros. ripped up his screenplay and substituted a version by David Seltzer, who later went on to write The Omen and the TV series Revelations. I have also read he wasn't pleased about the choice of Gene Wilder for Willy Wonka. It's sad he's not around to see this version.

Tim Burton's remake is closer to Dahl's vision of a darkly comic parable about kids in the world's most incredible candy factory. It also has something to say about parenting, although not as forcefully as the Wilder version. And, most enjoyably, many of the musical numbers are gone, racheting up the pace of the film into more of a bedtime story than a children's novel.

Depp plays Wonka as an overgrown kid. He denies he's channeling Michael Jackson, but you do have to wonder with the light complexion, the long hair, the high voice, and the goofy suits. And his chocolate factory is Neverland, with all sorts of strange rooms designed with the playful air of a juvenile mind. If we think something's slightly sicko about him, it's only because of the comparisons to Jackson. The film offers a look into Wonka's depressing childhood, denied candy and forced to wear gargantuan headgear by an overzealous dentist dad.

The story, for those who don't know: Wonka's factory has been running in secrecy for years, although nobody has been seen coming or going. The old workers were let go years earlier, when Wonka shuttered the factory due to employees spreading his chocolate secrets to the competition. But then, it started up mysteriously again -- and nobody knows why, until Wonka offers the chance of a lifetime. Five golden tickets are hidden in Wonka chocolate bars around the world. The five children who find them get to tour the factory, accompanied by a parent, and one of them will win a prize beyond their wildest imagination.

As the title implies, Charlie Bucket (Highmore), is one of the winners. He is also the most unlikely person to win anything, it seems, as his family could easily earn the title of poorest in England. He and his parents live with four bedridden relatives in a house that gives new meaning to the word ramshackle -- with boards leaning every which way and a hole in the roof. His father toils for little money in a toothpaste factory. Grampa Joe was once an employee of Wonka's, and he relates to Charlie the mysteries and magic of what used to go on behind the closed gates.

The other four winners: Agustus Gluck, an obese German eating machine; Veruca Salt, an unabridged spoiled brat; Violet Beauregarde, a compulsive overachiever with a Barbie-doll mom; and Mike Teavee, a video game addict. Those who know the story know these rotten kids get dispatched in various ways while touring the factory.

That's when we hear a song by the Oompa Loompas -- the mysterious factory workers -- all of them played by diminuative actor Deep Roy through the wizardry of CGI which is so seemless I had to keep reminding myself all those little people came from just one man. They act as sort of a tripped-out Greek chorus pointing out each child's tragic flaws. But instead of that repetitive "Ooompa, Loompa, doopity-doo" diddy, composer Danny Elfman whips up tunes evoking hip-hop, glam metal, 60's flower power, and MTV. Unfortunately, I had a hard time hearing the lyrics in the theater -- possibly because of a bad sound mix.

The new Willy Wonka movie is the latest in a string of Hollywood do-overs. We've already seen Batman Begins. The Bad News Bears is coming, and King Kong is on the trailer reel. Many of these films didn't need to be remade, but as long as they are, I'm all for getting them right. Roald Dahl would be too, I imagine. He wrote a sequel to Charlie, but banned Warner Bros. from filming it. Maybe now his estate will reconsider.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Reel To Reel:
Bad News Bears

How It Rates: **1/2
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Greg Kinnear
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Copious Cussing Kids, Some Sexual References

Preconceived Notions: Hollywood dusts off another one for the remake machine.
The Bottom Line: Badder and bolder doesn't equal better.

I remember the original The Bad News Bears from 1976 as a raucous sports movie blended from elements of Our Gang and Slap Shot. What I don't remember -- and it's probably because I saw the film on TV rather than in a theater -- was the pervasive foul language from the mouths of the youngsters and their coach. The original rated a PG. This one nets a PG-13, and the only thing holding it back from R is the absence of an F-bomb.

Richard Linklatter directs this remake of the film written by Bill Lancaster, who remains in the writing credits. As you probably know, it's the story of a beleagured little league team in Southern California. The Bears exist only because a lawsuit forced the league to take a group of misfits. We have the usual suspect stereotypes: fat kid, black kid, Spanish-only Hispanic kids, immigrant kid, nerd kid, loner kid, a kid confined to a wheelchair -- and yes, the poster-child for Ritalin, combative Tanner Boyle (Timmy Deters).

Helming this bunch is shiftless, beer-swilling Morris Buttermaker (Thornton), a washed-up ex-major leaguer who works as an exterminator. Thornton turns the former Walter Mattheau role from a grumpy old man into a dirty old man. "Baseball's hard," he says. "You can love it but, believe me, it don't always love you back. It's kinda like dating a German chick." He gets the team a sponsorship from a strip bar. Coach would rather sip Budweiser than show the kids the proper catch-and-pivot for a double play. So the Bears are toast in their first game against the league champion Yankees, coached by hard-driving Roy Bullock (Kinnear). Buttermaker eventually decides to get in the game. He brings in pitcher Amanda Whurlitzer (Sammi Kraft), a girl with a wicked curveball, and Kelly Leak (Jeff Davies), a motorcycle punk with hitting power.

The 1976 version was crude and unsportsmanlike, but the remake is even cruder. Tanner's racist cracks are gone, but all the kids' mouths are a lot filthier. I get the point -- these are a rotten bunch. But it seems the film is trying to be crude simply because it can't get laughs any other way. Yes, I laughed when a toddler said the A-word in Meet The Fockers, but that bit of lewdness was at least inspired and believable. With Bears, it's tacked on.

That being said, I must inject something I cannot ignore. No specific location is mentioned for the Bears, but I'm guessing the fictional team is playing somewhere in the Inland Empire of SoCal. One kid references Claremont, where super-slugger Mark Magwire grew up. In fact, he attended Damien High School, where my mom now teaches. After hearing several horror stories from Mom about problem students -- and the lack of their parents to do anything about it -- maybe I'm wrong about how crude kids in this area can be. Still, it's not something I grew up with when I was playing YMCA T-ball. But that was when I lived in Kansas City.

I guess the problem is, as much as I want to like this picture, and as much as I respect films that break the rules and give the finger to political correctness, this film seems to lack a motive for its juvenile delinquency. I liked Team America: World Police in spite of its vulgarity because it turned the language of the war on terror upside down and mocked all sides with equal venom. Bad News Bears does make a point, I think, but it's something buried in an adult film masquerading as a family flick.

Saturday, July 2, 2005

Reel To Reel:
War Of The Worlds

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Intense Alien Ransacking

Preconceived Notions: Hope this has some brains to go with the effects. With Spielberg, there's hope.
The Bottom Line: Who's Tom Cruise?

DreamWorks worried Tom Cruise's fix with Katie Holmes could doom this picture. He might as well have been hooking up with Katie Couric. Dakota Fanning steals this picture, not in a cute way but in a vulnerable way. And if a multimillion dollar actor is upstaged by a kid, you wonder if the bloated budget could have been trimmed with somebody from the B-list. After all, Steven Spielberg has done wonders with no-names just as long as the story's good.

War Of The Worlds rips from one of the best in film that stews Independence Day, Alien, and The Day After Tomorrow. But give Spielberg credit for breaking the cardinal rule of disaster flicks: Cruise's character, Ray Ferrier, a working-class divorced father of two, isn't the only one in the world who knows why aliens are ripping up New York City and how to fight back. He's got other concerns: two estranged kids, Rachel (Fanning) and Robbie (Justin Chatwin), pushed into mandatory visitation.

The invasion starts with the weather. Lightning strikes the ground and giant tripods start rising from the boroughs of New York City, vaporizing anybody who gets in their way. Running is about the only thing you can do, since -- true to the H.G. Wells novel and previous film -- magnetism has disabled car ignitions. But Ray manages to jack a working car and drive off towards Boston, trying to get the kids back to Mom.

Fanning is totally into her role as the confused, frightened child. Chatwin is, well, there, but seems to be there simply because the script needed more tension. Robbie tries more than once to run off with the soldiers fighting against the invaders, which left me scratching my head because in other scenes he's more devoted to his kid sister than Dad. And Cruise's role? We see so many shots of him looking dazed, confused or bewildered I wondered if his contract paid him by the look. At times he seems lost in his own movie. At least we know why Fanning's mugging for the camera.

The special effects, powered by Industrial Light & Magic, are phenomenal. Dennis Muren, longtime ILM guru, pulls out all the CGI stops. But Spielberg remains the master. He chooses to focus the story on Ray and the kids' perspectives. One particular scene -- involving Cruise and company hiding from an alien probe in a basement -- is pulled off with razor-sharp tension. Unlike the first film, we do get a look at the aliens outside their ship. Even E.T. would run from these guys.

Spielberg's focus on fear, doubt, and dread make this picture highly watchable in spite of Cruise's excessive face time. This elevates this story to a suspense-thriller from a shallow, effects-heavy disaster film anybody else would have made.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Reel To Reel:
Mr. & Mrs. Smith

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Violence, Language, Some Sex

Preconceived Notions: Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever meets War Of The Roses
The Bottom Line: Darkly funny and just sexy enough.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith shares only a title with one of Alfred Hitchcock's film -- and a concept: a phony marriage. John Smith (Pitt) and Jane Smith (Jolie) are a lifeless couple leading extremely secret double lives as killers for hire. But domestically, they're more desperate than any TV housewife. They can't even drive off to work without airs of awkwardness. Therapy is clearly not the answer, as the opening scenes show, with both of them trying to protect their covers and John getting hung up on sex questions.

One wonders how Jane keeps a stash of weapons hidden under the oven and John keeps a cache under the garage without the other spouse finding out. But hey, these folks are good or they wouldn't be employed -- or even alive. However, when both of them are assigned the same hit, they almost kill each other and everything starts to unravel.

This leads to some real gems of scenes, including an edgy dinner and an all-out war in the living room. Eventually, though, the Smiths discover that through all the lies and subtrafuge they do, in fact, have feelings for each other, and an all-out brawl turns into a horny roll.

Mr. And Mrs. Smith is black comedy with an action edge, but mainly it's just fun.

Reel To Reel:
Batman Begins

How It Rates: ****
Starring: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Violence

Preconceived Notions: Batman Remixed
The Bottom Line: Batman Reborn

Warner Bros. abandoned its previous Batman franchise after complaints about it devolving into a kids' franchise (read: bad bytes on Film geeks demanded something darker, mature and campless. Now that any classic adventure movie worth making is worth making again (e.g. Godzilla and King Kong and the forthcoming Superman remake), Hollywood happily granted a do-over.

Batman Begins is what 1989's Batman should have been, and wasn't: the chronicle of a man's quest to fight crime while haunted by the murder of his wealthy parents, dogged by others' expectations, wrestling with moral contradictions, and scared of bats. Talk about issues. Batman oughta be popping Bat-Prozac.

As the film opens, billionaire heir Bruce Wayne (Bale) is wallowing in the criminal filth of some remote Asian prison (possibly China). We don't know why, but all will be answered quite nicely in the following reels as Wayne seeks training from a Ninja master. Wayne sharpens his body and mind for the larger than life persona we're all itching to see. As a symbol, Wayne is told, he is more than just a man -- something that adds more weight to the idea of jumping around in body armor and a mask with giant ears.

The Gotham Wayne returns to isn't the place his philanthropic parents helped build. It reeks of corruption and misery. Wayne Industries is going public and losing its way. Even the futuristic monorail the Waynes created has sprouted graffiti and grime. Still, like a candle in the darkness stands Wayne's childhood girlfriend Rachel (Katie Holmes, before she turned Tom Cruise into an OCD patient), now an assistant prosecutor fighting the good fight against some very long odds. She's up against Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) an underworld mega-boss who has paid off half the town. But Falcone's got problems of his own: some competition from a rival, Dr. Jonathan Crane (Tom Wilkinson) who's got a sinister plot and a hallucinogenic drug.

Wayne builds the Batcave and his outfit with help from a buried division of his father's company, led by gadget-man Lucius Fox (Freeman). Loyal butler Alfred (Caine) is there for support and the occasional reality check. And with these two for backup, Wayne is off to fight crime. But it's character more than cool gadgets and an urban-assault Batmobile which power the movie.

The 1989 Batman scratched at depth but didn't get very deep. The re-do is not just a better movie, it's a better sell. It flips models of heroes and villians, mucking up concepts of justice and revenge and forcing us to think about them. As we have observed here before, action movies are not supposed to make us think. When they do, they transcend the genre.

One critic called the '89 Batman the movie of the decade. Maybe in hype. Compared to this, Michael Keaton's blockbuster might as well have starred Adam West and Burt Ward.

Sunday, June 5, 2005

Reel To Reel:
The Longest Yard

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Burt Reynolds
Rated: R
Red Flags: Football Violence, Sexual Humor, Some Language

Preconceived Notions: Adam Sandler updates a football classic.
The Bottom Line: It's fast, it's funny, it's worth your while. Touchdown!

The original Longest Yard was played for drama. Adam Sandlers re-make is played for laughs, but this is no stupid Dumb And Dumber arrangement.

Sandler is Paul "Wrecking" Crewe, a pro banished from the NFL after a conviction for point shaving. A drunken spin in a Bentley violates his probation, and he ends up in a good-ol'-boy Texas lockup with a football-crazy warden (James Cromwell) and a set of torture-loving guards which could draw comparisons to Abu Gharib.

Warden Hazen wants some advice on getting his team of guards ready for the season. Crewe says you need a throwaway game, something the guards would win in a blowout to boost their morale. Hazen says fine, why not have the guards play a team of cons? It becomes Crewe's job to build that team.

He immediately befriends Caretaker (Rock), the prison procurement expert who can get anything from anywhere. It's not long before ex-footballer Nate Scarborough (Reynolds, who was in the original) signs on as coach. About half the film is devoted to Crewe putting his crew together, recruiting from the misfits who want to take a poke at the guards as well as the mean suckas who could do some serious bone breaking. Crewe figures his team needs some speed, too, leading to a brutal basketball challenge with Cheeseburger Eddy. The guards are getting wind of what Crewe's up to and want to stop him. The game is getting bigger. This throwaway game is suddenly an ESPN2 game of the week.

Yard is tightly paced and funny without being silly, which is saying something for director Peter Segal, who did the final Naked Gun picture along with other Sandler pictures like Anger Management and 50 First Dates. And for all its comedy, an edge of drama seems to help. But not too much drama. Football action? You've got it -- smash-mouth brutal stuff. It helps that former pros Michael Irvin and Bill Goldberg give the film some extra football chops. What? Goldberg's a wrestler? Oh yeah, we got those too: Steve Austin and Kevin Nash both play guards.

Having not seen the original, I can't make an honest comparison. But comparison is pointless seeing how many films get remade. The new Longest Yard is a good sports film, and if people think it's blasphemy what Segal has done to it, don't see it. Rent Friday Night Lights instead.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Reel To Reel:
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Hayden Christensen, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Sci-Fi Violence and Light Saberplay

Preconceived Notions: Ep. I was imaginitive, Ep. 2 dragging, hopefully we can build up steam. And at last we get reacquainted with Darth Vader.
The Bottom Line: Why couldn't the first two have been this good?

Complete, this saga is. A bridge to the past, we have crossed. Enough Yodaspeak. A lot of people dumped on Episode I because they didn't find it emotionally satisfying or witty enough. Patience, young Jedi. One must understand the full workings of The Force. It took three episodes to get there, but at last, we're there.

Episode III is more of what every Star Wars film has excelled at and less of everything it has sucked at. It is a tragedy fueled by love and lust for power. At times it is profoundly sad and sadly profound. Many have already written about parallels to the War On Terror and the U.S.-Iraq conflict, even though Lucas denies it as an influence. He was more influenced by Vietnam. But then again, our angst over Iraq parallels Vietnam, so everything's connected.

Episode III wastes no time pluging into action, including an over-the-top rescue mission involving Anakin Skywalker (Christensen), Obi-Wan Kenobe (McGregor) and R2-D2, that little droid who could. Saving kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) begins to accelerate Anakin's decent to the dark side, as he is seduced by the promise of power greater than he has ever known -- and Palpatine can show it all to him. His motives, however, are not for himself but for the protection of Padme (Portman), the former queen who's now about to become a mother. Anakin senses she will not survive childbirth, and it haunts him constantly. At the same time, he is growing impatient and suspicious of the Jedi council, fueled by the plotting of Palpatine. Both sides want Anakin's help in thwarting disaster, and it is no wonder this young man is left confused and vulnerable. Unfortunately, the dark side proves too powerful, as we all know.

George Lucas wrote Episode I, without the dialogue spark of his first efforts. Episode II improved things somewhat, and III improved them much more. Much talk still has the nuance of an earth mover, but at least the corny, shallow romance and longwindedness is gone. And yes, people, Jar-Jar is still there, but he only appears in one scene -- with no dialogue. At least we get to see Chewbacca. (I really miss Han Solo.) This film actually says things in its sit-down scenes, and I liked it.

As for the effects, what can you say about a franchise that redefined the art? Lucas takes us to new places and re-mixes everything we've seen. Even the light saber battles have new jawdropping twists. And don't forget the showdown between Obi-Wan and Anakin on a burning planet. But frankly, I didn't watch this film for the effects. I wanted to understand how this Jedi Knight Anakin gets caught up in the Axis of Galactic Evil. Now I do.

If Episodes I and II made me hungry for sequels, it was because I knew something better was coming -- something had to be better than this. If Episode III leaves you hungry, it's because you've become involved in the storyline. You want to know what happens to these people, especially Anakin, now Darth Vader. Love him or hate him, you can't help but feel some sort of sympathy for him now.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Reel To Reel:

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Jet Li, Bob Hoskins, Morgan Freeman
Rated: R
Red Flags: Strong Graphic Martial-Arts Violence, Language, Brief (female) Nudity

Preconceived Notions: Jet Li gets to kick some butt as a killing machine.
The Bottom Line: Even the meanist dog has a heart.

Unleashed breaks a cardinal rule of action flicks. It has warmth and feelings. And that doesn't mean a horny throwaway sex scene, although that's nearly here. For this film, it's a man discovering a world outside his violent existence as somebody's bitch.

Yes, I used that word correctly. Okay, nearly correctly. The gender doesn't fit but everything else does. Li plays Danny, who's been turned into an attack dog -- right down to the collar he wears when he's not attacking somebody. He's fed like a dog, caged like a dog, and sicced on people like a dog. Bart is his master (Hoskins, in a deliciously evil role), a loan shark who bangs around Glasgow, Scotland, siccing Danny on anybody who hasn't paid up. When you don't pay up, the collar comes off, and Danny puts some serious hurt on you and whatever tough guys you throw at him.

For all Danny knows, he is a dog, with some fuzzy memories of the boy he once was. When the collar is on, he's not much different than a frightened puppy, laconic and shy of people. One day, Danny is standing around alone in an antique shop, surrounded by pianos, waiting for his gangster owners to sic him on somebody when he recconects with a memory from his past. In strides Sam, (Freeman) a blind piano tuner with a heart more golden than Fort Knox. He coaxes Johnny into helping him tune a piano, and soon, this dog will have his day as he's taken in to a new family.

The rest of the film is divided between fight scenes and warmth scenes. I'll not describe them for you only to say that the warmth scenes put the fight scenes in a different light. Usually in martial-arts films, you're rooting for the tough-guy hero to smash the bad guys to bits. That doesn't change, but with an ounce of humanity stirred into the mix, this film yields a pound of compassion, and the brutality emerges for what it is.

I'm reminded of what Rex Reed said about John Wayne in The Cowboys: "Old Dusty Britches can act." Well, Jet Li can act too. This may not be the role of his career, but it's certainly a notch above what I've seen from him so far. Somebody give him a shot at a film without the martial arts.

Parts of Unleashed come together a little too perfectly. It's annoying at times to watch Freeman have all the answers like Obi-Wan Kenobi. The characters also sidestep logicial decisions, such as maybe realizing Danny needs professional help when he hides under the bed and slurps his soup like a cocker spaniel. However, as Sam himself points out, he doesn't ask many questions. I didn't either.

Saturday, May 7, 2005

Reel To Reel:
Kingdom Of Heaven

How It Rates: **1/2
Starring: Orlando Bloom, Liam Neeson, Eva Green
Rated: R
Red Flags: Ye Olde Copious Violence

Preconceived Notions: Troy, Alexander, and now this Crusades epic.
The Bottom Line: Oh it's beautiful, but get me the scissors. It's time to start cutting.

Director Ridley Scott's latest is about passionate people with passionate beliefs fighting passionate battles filmed with passionate attention to detail. And yet this film lacks so much passion, except in spurts. Worship service at my parents' church has more heart and soul as this film plods along. At times I thought this film could have been called Kingdom of Heaven's Gate, with its sprawling length and mess of multiculturalism.

Bloom is Balian, a blacksmith who's just lost his wife and child. He's estranged from his father, Godfrey (Neeson), who's gone looking for his son after years fighting in one of the many battles of the Crusades. Reluctantly, Bailian follows his father back to Jerusalem, where he is knighted as his father's last act before dying.

Jerusalem's populations of Christians, Jews and Muslims are holding together under a leper King Baldwin IV (Edward Norton). He and the knight Tiberias (Jeremy Irons) defend a shaky truce between crusading knights and Muslims. However, one all-balls-and-no-brains boor of a knight Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) is just itching for a fight to kick out anything without a cross. But attempts to raise hell are futile as long as the king is alive and willing to negotiate with the Muslims led by Saladin (Ghassan Massoud).

However, there's a woman conveniently involved. Sibylla (Green) is Baldwin's sister, heir to the throne with the power to make Guy king. So you can see what's coming just like the great armies in the distance. Yet she loves Bailian, and would marry him if given the chance, which Baldwin is eager to give to stave off Guy getting his seat on a throne.

Bailian, however, needs to be pounded out like the iron he once hammered. Here a man, still obviously in mourning, who doesn't seem to know where his center of gravity is until three-quarters of the way through the picture when he finally delievers his Great Heroic Speech. It's supposed to be a powerful moment, and it is, but more for what it isn't. Bailian doesn't give a sermon but a reality check: "We fight over an offense we did not give, against those who were not alive to be offended." This is where the film shines, when this unlikely knight rises above the radicalism to bring people together. Bloom's character, I should point out, doesn't owe his allegiance to God but rather to defending the helpless.

Much of the strife between Christians and Muslims can be traced back to the Crusades, but Kingdom Of Heaven misses a chance to probe the radicalism, merely saying, "It's God's will," when necessarily. God's Will is used more like an excuse than a bedrock belief. It's God's Will people live. It's God's Will people die. It's God's Will people fight. It's God's Will people surrender. But really, the trouble is that people are cloaking their own ambitions as God's Will.

Kingdom stages battles impossible to get on film without CGI. Gargantuan armies attack and throw firebombs. The attack scenes on Jerusalem are electrifying, along with one earlier scene where the Christian and Muslim armies meet and nearly come to attack.

The film runs a bloated 2 hours and 25 minutes. Twenty-five minutes less and you could've come away with a more dynamic film, still beautifully photographed, and heaven knows more passionate.

Thursday, May 5, 2005

Idol Chatter

Media Professor and game-show guru Steve Beverly has a great analysis of ABC's Fallen Idol report. A colleague of mine asked "Who cares?" if Paula Abdul was doing Corey Clark. Beverly compares it to offering performance-enhancing drugs. What puzzles me is why Fox hasn't tried to get to the bottom of various problems with the telephone voting on this show, including one foul-up which required a sing-over earlier this season. To me, that's more scandalous than anything between Corey and Paula. Also note Beverly's insightful comparisons with the 50's quiz-show scandals -- and why this show isn't in the same league as Twenty-One.

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Reel To Reel:
XXX: State Of The Union

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Ice Cube, Samuel L. Jackson, Willem Dafoe
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Violence, Language

Preconceived Notions: XXX without Vin Diesel?
The Bottom Line: Maybe Diesel's not around, but his attitude is.

One of KOLD-TV's "Reel Life" Reviewers described the original XXX (2002) as James Bond with a punk soundtrack. Director Rob Cohen revved up a familiar formular with Diesel's gravelly-voiced attitude... and it worked. Everyone was set for a sequel, but both Diesel and Cohen ditched the project. Enter director Lee Tamahori (Die Another Day) and Ice Cube. But keep the attitude.

It works again. XXX: State Of The Union does not demand or require deep thought. In fact, thinking too hard just ruins the experience. Strap yourself in and enjoy the ride, because Ice Cube cool gangsta persona is what saves the project.

The new XXX wastes no time, coming out with guns blazing as attackers infiltrate an super-secret NSA underground command center in Virginia. Agent Augustus Gibbons (Jackson) and his Q-derivative-gadget-guy slip out and decide it's time to go "off the grid," because it's likely an inside job. And they need a new XXX -- redefined in this film as a generic code name for an NSA agent under deep cover.

Gibbons springs an old Navy SEAL comrade, Darius Stone, who's doing 20 years in a military prison for an op gone bad. Stone makes it clear he's not out of the can to take orders from anybody but himself, but in reluctantly helping Gibbons he stumbles into a plot by a former commander, Gen. George Deckert (DaFoe), to overthrow the government and install himself as president.

Interestingly enough, the current fictional president James Sanford (Peter Strauss) bears a working resemblence to John Kerry. Not surprisingly, he is calling for less defense spending, more foreign aid, and more cooperation with other nations to turn our "enemies into allies." I wondered whether the producers were betting on a Kerry win just so they could market this film as red-state revenge. But wait a minute, we already have a bad guy. As I said, don't think too hard.

Tamahori keeps the film moving with lean scenes and sharply tuned dialogue -- most of it from Cube, who makes us forget about Vin Diesel. A lot of things are forgettable besides Diesel -- blowing things up, shooting things down, speeding things away. Even some of the CGI-rendered scenes are borderline cartoonish. But Cube, he's just cool.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Reel To Reel:
The Interpreter

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Nichole Kidman, Sean Penn
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Violence, Language, One Strip Bar Scene

Preconceived Notions: Sydney Pollack is back with a suspense thriller.
The Bottom Line: Suspense, surprises, even with a forced setup.

Alfred Hitchcock could have easily directed a film like The Interpreter and turned it into a masterpiece of suspense and international intrigue. What Sydney Pollack produces doesn't quite reach the bar, but it comes darn close -- especially since it's the first film shot extensively at the United Nations, further enhancing its realism.

Kidman plays Sylvia Broome, a UN interpreter who fled a war-torn African nation believing words worked better than bullets at bringing about peace. One night, while retrieving a bag from the audio engineering room -- a questionable plot device because we never really understand why it needed to be placed there to begin with -- she overhears somebody talking about a plot to assassinate her former country's embattled prime minister... who will be speaking before the General Assembly in just a few days. It's an amazing coincidence, made even more amazing when you realize that conversation was whispered and coming from a headphone, meaning Broome has Superman's hearing.

Get beyond those little head-scratchers, though. The rest of the film is tightly plotted and paced as the feds investigate the both the threat and Broome, who isn't quite the innocent diplomat she appears to be. Tobin Keller (Penn) is the Secret Service agent assigned to her, the kind of fed who believes none of what he hears and only half of what he sees. He thinks she's lying, and maybe she is. But he's drawn to this woman who's lost both her parents, having just lost a wife. Both are seeking their own forms of justice.

The chemistry between Penn and Kidman's characters seems a bit contrived for reasons I can't explain without giving away plot points. At times it's like the writers simply forgot the events of the previous scene because some edict came down that both leads were to be pushed closer together in the next scene. Thankfully, the romance between them isn't a major distraction as the plot to kill the prime minister unravels. On the other hand, both of these people have too much on their mind to have time for love, so maybe I'm reading it wrong.

Pollack, as he's done before, inserts himself in a bit part -- by no means as memorable as his George Fields character from Tootsie -- something, ironically, Hitchcock might have done on a one-scene scale. But Hitchcock would have also have found a way to make the romantic angle work better. It's fun to think about this film being rewritten for Cary Grant and Doris Day. Yes, we dream about peace between nations just like dreaming about the perfect film.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

I'm A Celebrity -- I Don't Have To Pay!

The New York Post reveals swag -- an acronym for Stuff We All Get -- may need redefinition as Stars Want it All Gratis.

Calling The Webmaster... Are You There?

Yes, we're still here. But the reason the number of posts has been slowing down is (drum roll) real life. I simply refuse to let blogging take over most of my free time -- especially this past week when I've been on "spring break" (L.A., San Diego, Las Vegas, Grand Canyon... whew, try that in a week).

I remember the old Drudge Report tagline -- updated as needed, or something like that. Folks, I know we've been through an unforgettable three weeks, with Teri Schiavo and the Pope rolling into one huge period of perpetual mourning. But I really don't need to add to it any more than what other blogs have been saying -- or quoting from other blogs.

So stick with us and be patient. We won't waste your time with idle byte chatter.

Saturday, April 9, 2005

Reel To Reel:

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Penelope Cruz, Steve Zahn
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Violence, Mild Language

Preconceived Notions: Flight Of The Phoenix and National Treasure rolled into one picture.
The Bottom Line: Entertaining action thriller, even if it pushes the limits of believability.

Watching Sahara is to buy a jigsaw puzzle, dump it out on the kitchen table, and start putting pieces together until everything finally fits. In the end, you're left with a satisfying experience and a pretty picture, but along the way, you make mistakes, you turn your attention in different directions and probably get lost a few times.

This adaptation of Clive Cussler's novel bills four screenwriters, which makes sense since the picture would have fallen into a complete mess if a fifth came along. The main plot involves treasure hunters Dirk Pitt and Al Giordino (McConaughey and Zahn) looking for a Civil War gunboat that somehow made it all the way to what's now a war-torn African nation. We're not supposed to worry about how the heck it could have possibly made it, or why rebels would run that way. Besides, we've got to occupy our attention with a doctor (Cruz) tracking a mysterious illness that's killing quick and spreading fast, a warlord wanting to knock off an enemy tribe, and an slimy industrialist who's giving aid and comfort to him.

Dirk and his crew have the brains of MacGuyver and the guts of Indiana Jones. They can bust heads in one scene and plot out an escape plan the next. They slip out of every noose tightened around them with nary a scratch and dodge bullets better than Dash in The Incredibles. Many times this invincibility of heroes gets old and stale, but McConaughey and Zahn play it off with such smart-alec zeal and energy, it's just plain fun watching them do it. Cruz' character is there for more than just window dressing, but thankfully, the movie avoids putting her and Dirk in the sack.

Sahara switches between plots like a remote control, but they all come together in a way that somehow makes sense, not entirely, but acceptably. It's certainly as enjoyable as National Treasure, which had its own stretch marks. Maybe one more rewrite... nah, here I am back with that fifth writer again.

Saturday, April 2, 2005

Reel To Reel:
Sin City

How It Rates: ****
Starring: Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson
Rated: R
Red Flags: Graphic Violence, Language, Some Nudity & Sex.

Preconceived Notions: Looks to be the most visually interesting movie since Sky Captain & The World Of Tomorrow.
The Bottom Line: A gritty, dark-humored comic book come to life. Now lets hope it gets the props it deserves.

When Dick Tracy hit the screen in 1990, it grasped the look and feel of the comic right down to the primary colors. Leech out most of the color, add a Pulp Fiction-style format and film noir and you have arrived in Sin City, the movie adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novels. Notice I didn't say "comic books."

Maverick director Robert Rodriguez, who cuts what he shoots, put his Avids into overdrive to create this superb work of film art. Quentin Tarantino directed one portion. It is beautifully dark, and darkly witty. Spashes of color draw our attention every now and then, but most of the film is shaded and composed in black-and-white, like the frames of Miller's work... sometimes in simple silhouette. It submerges us in an urban wasteland where everybody is either smoking, hooking or killing. Mostly killing.

Sin City is composed of three different stories of murder and revenge over the course of two hours. Describing their plots would rob you of this film's most rewarding experience, which is meeting a series of decadent characters whose lives unfold before you. I'll just say a lot of people end up dead, some in ways more creative and disgusting than others. This film is a hair shy of NC-17, and the only reason it dodged that rating is the artful dodging of the most graphic scenes.

The principal players narrate their stories as if they're writing thought balloons above their heads, the words crackling with black wit. Killing people is second nature to them, no more antagonizing than swatting a few flies. A good day in Sin City is when 50 people are murdered instead of 100. Most interestingly, for all the bodies that ought to be piling up around town you see no hint of a cemetery.

Sin City is just as visually striking and innovative, if not more, than last year's Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow. However, the latter film got nary or no awards nods. A similar fate for this film would be a travesty, although I fear it's likely given the awards' shows propensity for ignoring the first six months of the year.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Teri, Meet Elian

CNN ran a story yesterday about the similarities between the Terri Schiavo and Elian Gonzales cases. I should've sued them for unauthorized reading of my mind. Heck, I might even get the president to kick it up to federal court for me.

Just when I thought the Michael Jackson case was the Ringling Bros. of media circii (and the reason why it doesn't appear in my 10pm newscast as long as I can help it, God save me) along comes this unqualified sob-and-shout fest that does everything to stroke conservative power trips and darn little to respect individual rights. Teri Schiavo has become the new Elian Gonzales -- an innocent pawn being pulled between two very loud, very powerful, very annoying forces like those old tug-of-war games between me and my aunt's dog. At least Elian knew somebody loved him. With Terri, I'm not so sure where the love is.

The histrionics in the Schiavo case are off the charts. People have gotten arrested outside the hospice for trying to deliver water to her. It reminds me of a similar case I saw on TV back in Missouri in the 1980's, where a group protesting outside a hospital threatened to force-feed a right-to-die patient. With what? Twinkies?

Only in America can you get a lawsuit kicked out of three courts and still stay in the game. Granted, Terri's parents got help from President Bush and Congress when they crashed a bill over the weekend to let the folks move into the federal system. As The Daily Show acutely observed, the Prez acted faster to aid Schiavo's folks than the Southeast Asia tsunami victims. Morality talks, bullshit floats.

The polls on this aren't even close. More than two-thirds of Americans think Congress meddled in a private matter. But polls, schmolls. This is all about sucking up to right-wingers, who you would think don't need any futher sacrifices at the altar. Some Republican lawmakers like Christopher Shays can see the legislative logic doesn't square with conservative principles of limited government intervention. If only these people had spoken up before the House passed an awful TV indecency bill that threatens to criminalize a news live shot gone bad.

Doctors claim Terri has been misdiagnosed, that she really isn't in a persistant vegetative state. Watching that video of her that's gotten more play than Michael Jackson and his umbrella-handler walking into court, it's almost like she's shaking her head in disbelief wondering why nobody can figure out what's wrong with her.

Ultimately, sadly, Terri Schiavo will die, just like the collective dignity of those people who should know better. And if anything, this whole ugly experience will have people running to their lawyers to ask for living wills before they find themselves incoherent, clinging to life and slapped back and forth as a political ping-pong ball. As for me, I have yet to draw up the paperwork, but I'm putting my parents on notice right now if I get caught in the Twilight Zone between life and death: no drips, no tubes, no lawsuits, no Twinkies.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Go Save Yourself

The Terri Schiavo case has one major lesson: Get yourself a living will -- especially if you have a spouse and kids. I don't have one. I don't have a regular one. Do some deduction and you'll figure out why.

I only hope that half the energy spent agonizing and praying for Terri Schiavo goes into getting some more living wills drafted. Maybe her fate is sealed, but the rest of us still have a chance.

Here's some advice on living wills from a Tucson attorney. I'm not a lawyer, and I don't play one on TV, so you'll need to consult somebody where you live for definitive advice.

Reel To Reel:

How It Rates: **1/2
Starring: Voices Of Ewan McGregor, Robin Williams, Halle Berry, Mel Brooks
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Comic Book Violence, Some Bathroom Humor

Preconceived Notions: Some generous star power for an animated flick.
The Bottom Line: It runs, but it's no well-oiled machine.

Comparing Robots, a product of Fox Animation Studios, with anything from Pixar is like comparing a Lincoln Towncar to a Rolls Royce. Both will get you there, but only one has the real style. Yes, Robots is entertaining. It's truly funny at times. It has a message for kids about following your dreams. But it lacks a level for adults which Pixar or even DreamWorks Animation weaved into films like The Incredibles or Shrek.

Enough comparing though. On its own merits, Robots is great for the kids, filling the screen with dozens of cute machines reminiscent of 40's and 50's wind-up toys and some inventive chase sequences. One scene involving countless dominoes will leave your mouth hanging open. But the movie as a whole suffers from sudden bursts of acceleration, with action inserted to hide a fragmented plot. It's as if somebody keeps winding it up and letting it run down.

In a world populated by cute machines, a young robot named Rodney Copperbottom (McGregor) hopes to become the next great inventor. He's just pieced together a worker-bee like home appliance which can help you with just about anything, provided you don't scare him. Rodney sets out for the big city in search of his idol Bigweld (voice of Mel Brooks), the robot world's version of Ron Popeil. But Bigweld's company has been taken over by Ratchet (voice of Greg Kinnear), and his evil mother. Ratchet's new Microsoftian corporate vision is upgrades, not spare parts. Under his plan, countless robots are headed for the scrap heap.

Not if Rodney can help it. He teams up with a motley crew of spare-part misfits including the manic Fender (Williams) and Cappy (Berry), one of Ratchet's corporate minions -- and a robot that will led to nerd arguments about whether Halle Berry or her on-screen persona has the sexier body. Together they head off to find Bigweld and get him back in command.

Williams' performance is by far the most enjoyable of the film (when has Williams not been enjoyable, except in maybe Death To Smoochy?). It throws in sly references to Britney Spears, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, The Wizard Of Oz and even Kukla, Fran and Ollie. But everything else is knock-around action, like watching a pinball machine from under the glass. The film tries to freshen a plot we've seen countless times before -- the boy who saves the world -- but it's still there. "You can shine no matter what you're made of," Bigweld says to the world. True, but you're still going to need some polish now and then.

Thursday, March 10, 2005


Dan Rather didn't go out with a bang or even a whimper. He went out just the way he should have, with class, grace, and words of thanks, much to the chagrin to right-wingers who still want him crucified and bleeding on national television. At the end, CBS News staffers surrounded the anchor desk, cheering him for a job well done -- a moment interrupted and soiled by a Wal-Mart commercial. That annoyance spoke just as much about CBS and its news philosophy as anything in the newscast itself. You would think the brass at Black Rock could dispense with the whoring of its newscast for this one night only and let Dan have a more dignified exit.

So Dan's off the desk, but not off the beat. He'll still report for 60 Minutes Wednesday, more than we can say for Uncle Walter, who nearly vaporized after leaving the Evening News. And now, here comes Walter, sticking the knife in Rather's back and twisting it, saying Bob Schieffer should have been the one to replace him. It's a shame. I expected better from an elder statesman of broadcast journalism.

I guess it's for the best. The epitath of the almighty network news achor has been written many times over, and with friends like these, who'd want the job? Dan's only sin -- as far as I'm concerned -- in the whole Memogate mess is that he tried to do too much and not enough. Too much anchoring. Not enough reporting. Too much trust. Not enough double-checking. Too much face time. Not enough grunt work.

A reporter who once worked at my station refused to voice a story we had gotten from a feed service because he hadn't reported it and had no way to verify the facts. He put his job on the line. What if Dan Rather said to Mary Mapes (producer of the Memogate story), "I'm not doing this. This is too sketchy. These documents haven't been verified." Dan would still be in that anchor chair tomorrow. He had the clout. He should've used it and refused to be somebody's mouthpiece on a story this explosive.

Call it... courage.