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.