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.