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.