A Movie Review Bonanza (June 2005)

The following is a roundup of new Celebrity Cola film reviews. All of the movies listed are coming out (or being reissued) on DVD in 2004-05. Most of the flicks were released theatrically in 2004, but a few are classics.

After The Sunset (2004)
Director Brett Ratner brings his expertise in creating clichés to the forefront of this silly, pointless, annoying flick. The only highlights are Woody Harrelson's engaging, cartoon-like performance and Naomie Harris' fresh, likable take on a one-note character. The sexy Salma Hayek and square-jawed Pierce Brosnan have zero chemistry and sleepwalk through the unspeakable plot.

The Aviator (2004)
Director Martin Scorsese can't make this bird fly faster than a standard biopic, leaving innovation at the airport. But the soaring visuals and eager performances add lift to an intriguing true story.

Alfie (2004)
Stripped of the grit and reality of the original, this too-pretty remake is much like its lothario protagonist: beautiful, smooth talking, sexy, and ultimately confused and hollow. As forgetful as the most vacant one-night-stand you've ever had, a gorgeous and talented cast is wasted in one well-shot scene after the next.

The Anniversary Party (2001)
A small film with big stars and a modest payoff. One could easily accuse the celebs participating in (and making) this movie of supreme navel-gazing and self-reflexiveness, but the plot pats no one on the back. Instead, it’s a stark and blistering look at Hollywood life. The plot meanders, but the crisp characterizations are not easily forgotten.

The Brown Bunny (2004)
Egomaniac wunderkind Vincent Gallo creates a rabbit story where the Watership doesn't go Down but daring indie starlet Chloë Sevigny infamously does. The hopping-mad scandal and backlash surrounding the film obscure the fact that emotional truth is leaping through this artistic briar patch.

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004)
Director Beeban Kidron misses the edge and falls off the building. Hugh Grant and Colin Firth are at their sardonic best, but the script is messier than Bridget Jones’ dieting habits, plot points from the original film being tossed through a spin cycle like dirty panties best thrown out. Leaving viewers with a bad-movie-binge hangover, Renée Zellweger tarnishes her skyrocketing career by turning her previously plucky portrayal of Jones into a running fat-dumb-clueless-blonde joke. A better title would have been “Four Bad Jokes and a Funeral for a Femme Franchise.”

The Bourne Supremacy (2004)
Shaken, stirred, and best served cold, “The Bourne Supremacy” is the best spy thriller of the year. Like spymaster John Le Carré on an amphetamine revelry, Robert Ludlum's novels create a world as thrilling as James Bond's but laced with intriguing blasts of reality and clandestine doses of philosophy. Where modern secret-agent flicks have mostly become routine exercises in beating the bad guys with cool gadgets, Matt Damon’s interpretation of Bourne gives new meaning to the phrase “intelligence community,” with the Bourne franchise’s real intellect, scorching thrills, and emotional relevance fighting the good fight against Hollywood’s current cold war against new ideas and common sense. Director Doug Liman got smart (again) and deftly incited a mini-revolution with “The Bourne Identity”; new helmer Paul Greengrass vigorously builds on Liman’s work while continuing his mission of assassinating spy movie clichés. The supporting cast is superb: Brian Cox, Joan Allen, Chris Cooper, et al infiltrate life into even their smallest moments onscreen. Julia Stiles’ character seemed too young and ultimately unnecessary in the first flick, but here she begins to shine. Franka Potente’s shocking early exit from the proceedings smuggles the sexual tension out of the plot, but the loss of her character is needed to fuel Bourne’s unhidden rage. We can only hope more directors with a license-to-greenlight will cast this first-class actress in scads of films without subterfuge or delay.

Claire's Knee (Le Genou de Claire, 1970)
Eric Rohmer’s movies attract viewers with erotic posters and tantalizing story fixations. But it’s all a ruse: Alternatingly thoughtful, philosophical, mumbled, lingering, lackadaisical, intellectual, quotidian, feverish, solipsistic, and seemingly never-ending dialogue rules the day. Watching a Rohmer flick is like reading a good essay while simultaneously eavesdropping on a couple in a café. Revealing, engaging, sometimes boring, often a little dirty—adjectives pop to mind, but breathtaking images do not. “Claire's Knee” is classic Rohmer and as affecting as his films come. If you’re up for “Claire,” the reward will be a film that slips into your subconscious and subtly arouses your imagination, if only you can stay awake.

Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004)
Like a typical SNL sketch, moments of absolute hilarity are mixed with abject stupidity and the joke is stretched out way too long. Quotable scenes are plentiful, the cast is solid and inventive, and audiences who have seen too many movies like this before are left feeling like they just ate a bowl of junk food.

Donnie Darko (2001)
Teen angst hasn’t been this cool since Christian Slater and Winona Ryder obliterated the screen in “Heathers.” Enchanting, ambitious, haunting, and only a little ridiculous, “Donnie Darko” announces writer-director Richard Kelly as a massive talent, actor Jake Gyllenhaal as a complex performer, and faded star Patrick Swayze as someone we shouldn’t forget. Skip the competent theatrical version and go straight to the masterful director’s cut. The philosophical side of Philip K. Dick’s science fiction has always been largely ignored in the adaptations of his films, but here Kelly captures the rarified mindset of Dick without having to plunder any of his writing. Instead, the director creates a brand new world that mystifies and captivates. For both good and ill, “Darko” leaves a thousand ideas and hundreds of unanswered questions in the viewer’s brain—a feeling that’s aggravating, exciting, and undeniably different.

Faces (1968)
A hallmark of ultra-low-budget indie cinema, “Faces” remains avant-garde after nearly 40 years. Ignoring the gutted production values, one can appreciate the fierce performances and innovative directorial techniques of John Cassavetes.

Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)
Despite the pro-socialist/anti-Republican bent, Michael Moore’s film hits too many targets of every political stripe to truly be called pure propaganda. “Fahrenheit” collects crucial news snippets, contrasts divergent factoids, presents overlooked data, and raises plausible conspiracies in a deceptively humorous, easy-to-digest, time-capsule-like filmic journey through modern American politics. A must-watch film for anyone interested in the State of the Union—even viewers who disagree with the filmmaker’s vantage should give “Fahrenheit” a chance, lest they miss important talking points that will continue to affect the evolution of society.

Garden State (2004)
The ghost of iconoclast director Hal Ashby permeates writer-director-star Zach Braff’s aesthetic even more than it informs auteur Wes Anderson. This is not a bad thing. Ashby is an oft-forgotten genius, and Braff builds on his techniques to establish himself as more than a mere sitcom actor, elevating his status to that of a sensitive leading man and documenter of elusive details and ignored lives. Exquisite imagery, delightful cinematography, and skillful gags are artfully deployed in this gentle, unassuming love story. Peter Sarsgaard gives the potentially typical funny-slacker-pothead character layers of depth and sad appeal; Natalie Portman sparkles in a way she hasn’t since she was an astonishing child in “Léon: The Professional”; Ian Holm is pitch-perfect, as usual.

The Great Gatsby (1974)
An all-star cast and crew—including Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, Bruce Dern, Karen Black, and Sam Waterston acting, Francis Ford Coppola writing, Jack Clayton directing, and legendary Douglas “Indiana Jones Trilogy” Slocombe shooting—somehow manage to turn F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic Great American Novel into a turgid, stultifying experience. The dazzling stars, cinematography, and set/costume design should be captivating, but poor Clayton and in-his-prime Coppola dig “Gatsby” a deep grave in the cemetery of boredom just the same. Although the movie is technically loyal to the novel, watching the film is so numbing you’ll never want to read the book, which is a dirt-dog dirty shame. Rumor has it that Coppola only had three weeks to write the screenplay after Truman Capote’s draft was rejected, and the “Patton” scribe/“Godfather” director was not yet enough of a moviemaking titan to demand more time or a shot at directing the flick himself; very regrettable. The film’s critical and financial drubbing left Clayton in a funk that kept him from directing for nine years. “Gatsby” is a bold undertaking, to be sure, but unmistakably a resounding, somnambulating failure on all fronts.

Hud (1963)
Paul Newman was never as good of an action star as his mega-cool rival Steve McQueen, but he consistently beat McQueen at the game of artistic triumph. Nor have the principal heirs to Newman’s status as an artistically accomplished, bankable, über-manly pretty-boy superstar—namely, Robert Redford and Tom Cruise, and, somewhat less successfully, Keanu Reeves, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, the fallen Kevin Costner, and wannabes Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, etc.—ever eclipsed his ability to balance big budget popcorn successes with numerous nuanced performances in commendable, unforgettable films. “Hud” is one such film. Based on Larry McMurtry’s novel “Horseman, Pass By,” and sometimes described as a rethinking of “Rebel Without a Cause” set in a 1960s update of the Old West, this revisionist modern Western is also reminiscent of the McMurtry scribed “The Last Picture Show” and Newman’s later performance in “Nobody's Fool.” In its detailed depiction of quiet desperation, small-town misery, loner rebellion, interfamily strife, and coming of age in changing times—rife with societal subtext that’s still relevant today—“Hud” stands tall, drinking viewers under the table with poetic depression.

I Heart Huckabees (2004)
Whimsical, daring, stupefying. A bizarre comedy about philosophical and metaphysical questions. Naomi Watts? Delicious. Dustin Hoffman? He’s back from the Void of Forgettable Roles. Lily Tomlin? Shows she should be in more films. Isabelle Huppert? Dead-on. Jude Law’s American accent is a dud, but he’s winning just the same, even while playing an unlikable character. Mark Wahlberg, horrific in nearly everything (with “Three Kings” and “Boogie Nights” being strong exceptions), shines. Jason Schwartzman proves he’s got something to offer other than just being the guy from the top-draw “Rushmore,” being the guy related to famous people, and being the guy who plays drums in a so-so, danceable band. David O. Russell—seemingly blacklisted from Hollywood for being an egocentric prick that picks on actors, extras, and crewmembers and battled George Clooney in a very public display of dislike—proves why he deserves not just a comeback but also a new film deal every year. No one makes movies like Russell, and he continues to surprise.

I, Robot (2004)
A disappointing paint-by-numbers action flick from director Alex Proyas, the mind behind the astounding “Dark City” (and, admittedly, some not-so-astounding other films). Isaac Asimov’s seminal science fiction and Proyas’ research into modern robotics and futurist theory should have resulted in a mind-bending exploration of the near future and the possibilities for mankind. There’s a computer science term called GIGO, which stands for “Garbage In, Garbage Out,” meaning that a computer can only output quality if quality is first entered. All signs pointed toward quality being entered into this film, so why the garbage result? Sure, laser-gun battles and action-film set pieces are expected in a big-budget extravaganza such as this, but did it all have to be so mindless and typical? Will Smith—a professed sci-fi geek and a Hollywood powerhouse—could’ve helped protect the visions of Asimov and Proyas (assuming he had a vision), but instead he seems content to shout and squint through this mildly entertaining shoot ’em up. It’s smarter than your typical Hollywood summer-action crap and has some great special effects, but opportunities are missed at every turn of the gear.

Knife in the Water (Nóz w wodzie, 1963)
Roman Polanski skillfully manifests early Hitchcock-level tension in this low-budget thriller. A good example of how an intense film can be made with limited funds and a small cast. It’s not Polanski’s best by a mile, but he later set the bar high for himself with “Cul-de-sac,” “Repulsion,” “Chinatown,” “Rosemary's Baby,” “Frantic,” “The Pianist,” etc., so comparing this early work to his better-financed successes may not be fair.

The Motorcycle Diaries (Diarios de motocicleta, 2004)
Beautiful, inspiring, and races right along. The portrait of the revolutionary (Ché Guevara) when he still thought he could heal the people of the world without murdering his enemies. Gael García Bernal and Rodrigo De la Serna are glorious as the best friends seeking adventure. Walter Salles turns the memoirs of Ernesto Guevara de la Serna and Alberto Granado into a cinematic delight. You’ll forget you’re reading subtitles and find yourself transported into a different time and culture. A magnificent achievement: true-life stories are rarely this well told.

Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
Writer-Director Wes Anderson has only made four feature films, none of them blockbusters, but his style is already affecting a new generation of filmmakers. Writer-director Jared Hess, a decade younger than Anderson’s mere 36 years, instantly jumped to the forefront of Anderson acolytes with “Napoleon Dynamite.” Warping Anderson’s penchant for J.D. Salinger-like too-smart-for-their-own-good extended-family dynamics and Hal Ashby-inspired deadpan comedy reaped from heightened realism of the eccentrically ordinary, Hess balloons Anderson’s loving set-and-costume-design-as-running-gags modus operandi into an anachronistic smorgasbord, drops the IQ levels of his eccentric protagonists, inserts sketch-routine type jests and absurd-but-comedy-rich situations, stirs in some Alexander Payne circa “Election” teen hijinks, and lets his inordinately inspired cast steal the show, all while retaining the Anderson-like sub-themes of sadness, loneliness, and rebellious iconoclasm. The result doesn’t work as powerfully or on as many levels of consciousness as Anderson’s films, but its freewheeling nature provides pleasures that Anderson’s increasingly controlled comedic universes sometimes miss.

North Dallas Forty (1979)
Easily one of the top 50 greatest sports films ever made, and probably the best about professional U.S. football. It’s got the dog-eared grit, testosterone vitality, and anti-establishment forward drive of writer-director Oliver Stone’s masterpieces (“Platoon,” “Wall Street,” etc.), but Stone’s own longwinded take on football, “Any Given Sunday,” doesn’t hold a candle to this stadium rouser from director Ted Kotcheff and writer Peter Gent. Back when pro football had first really come into it’s own as a major U.S. pastime, but before it became as corporate and mass-produced as it is today, in a time when a lot of shaggy white guys dominated the sport, when performance-enhancing drugs, painkillers, and steroids where growing in popularity, when rebellion was in the air and sports salaries were skyrocketing, in an era when the jailhouse football yarn “The Longest Yard” was a smash hit, this was the time of the troubled North Dallas football team (a fictionalized account of the 1970s Dallas Cowboys). Conventional sport-film plot twists are replaced with realistic drama and gallows humor, and Nick Nolte is in top Method acting, Brando- invigorated form as an aging, decrepit player.

The Raisin in the Sun (1961)
Sidney Poitier, young and charismatic, dominates scene after scene in director Daniel Petrie’s powerful film version of Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play. The supporting cast is grand, and the tale’s dueling themes of motherhood, manhood, racism, family values, love, anger, and redemption intertwine with emotionally shattering results. The movie cannot shake its theatre roots and modest budget—it’s obviously a play, grounded in one location, not cinematic (the camera placement and editing are uninspired), with performances walking a razor’s edge between realism and sharpened theatricality—but the small, confined apartment set radiates a sense of home and claustrophobia that eventually enhances the dynamics of the conviction-filled ensemble, benefiting the tightly written, rhythmic script and immersing viewers into the lives of the Younger family.

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
A cute film about a spunky kid grows creepier and creepier as Alfred Hitchcock pulls strands of suspense from out of the darkness that lurks in every mind and every room. The acting and pacing are dated, and the visuals are not as finely finessed as in later Hitchcock efforts, but do not doubt this flick’s ability to summon nightmares.

Shark Tale (2004)
A good film for little kids, “Shark Tale” can’t stand up to adult scrutiny nor live up to the smash hit it’s desperately trying to capitalize on, Pixar’s “Finding Nemo.” DreamWorks drowns by substituting a whale-sized laundry list of celebrity names for true voice-over talent, fresh jokes, and a captivating story, leaving this peppy tale smelling like two-week old tuna sitting in the sun. Leads Will Smith and Renée Zellweger gamely swim through sappy dialogue; Jack Black (the friendly shark) is the only celeb who bothers creating an original voice and emotional undertone (undertow?) for his character; Angelina Jolie is hooked into a cliché; Ziggy Marley, Doug E. Doug, Michael Imperioli, and Vincent Pastore are given one-dimensional canned characters; Peter Falk and Katie Couric are wasted on quick-fry gags. Fast-forward to the Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese scenes for some undercooked fun. Call it “Finding Nada.”

Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Drop-dead funny. Even if you hate horror films, you’ll still find yourself laughing at this shtick-fest. And if you love horror movies, a thousand inside jokes await you. Lively, piquant characters romp through relevant relationship humor, pub jokes, and day-in-the-life farce before getting chased down by zombies that are both comical and terrifying. The genre transitions are smooth (not an easy feat), the comedic timing excellent. Think “The Office” meets “Monty Python” meets “28 Days Later...” and, obviously, “Dawn of the Dead.” Most shocking of all: It’s a great date movie.

Sideways (2004)
Can director Alexander Payne do no wrong? He strikes vintage in film after film. “Sideways” isn’t as laugh-out-loud and dazzlingly mean-spirited as “Election” or as heart wrenching as “About Schmidt,” but within its European art-film rhythms is an excellence that’s hard to describe. Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh, and Marylouise Burke breath four-dimensional life (length, width, depth, and time) into fully realized characterizations. “Sideways” was overhyped as both a knee-slapping comedy and mind-blowing drama—what makes the film remarkable is not the laughs or tears, which are sparse, but instead the fact that you go away feeling you know the characters as well as any friend you’ve ever had. They lodge into your mind like good times almost forgotten, their melancholy-mirthful story becoming part of the fabric of your memory. “Sideways” calls to mind Woody Allen when the Woodman is operating with a full glass, although it doesn’t quite match the very best bottles of vintage Woody. Give Payne some time: His skills are aging nicely.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)
Looks good . . . tastes bland. Riffing on 1940s science-hero movie serials, monster movies, film noir, old-school sci-fi, World War II propaganda films and newsreels, “His Girl Friday,” and the 1950s “Adventures of Superman” TV show, writer-director Kerry Conran seems possessed by an abundance of swell ideas. Combine cool concepts with crazy-good computer FX skills and a talented cast (Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Gambon, Ling Bai, Omid Djalili, and a reanimated Laurence Olivier) and you get a supa dupa copasetic movie, right? Well, sure, as long as the acting isn’t stiff, the pacing dull, the emotional arcs nonexistent, the plot points predictable, the dialogue laughable. . . . The moral of the story: Directorial auteurs and computer guys can have great ideas, but they need to honestly assess their skills and consider hiring a writer and strong-willed editor when it comes to crafting the screenplay and piecing together the final product. Conran even makes George Lucas’ half-assed but potential-filled “Star Wars” prequel scripts seem accomplished. In other words, this movie is a beautiful, witty, talented damsel in distress, and a superhero needs to fly in and save it from choking on its own nonsense.

The Stepford Wives (2004)
Why remake an okay suspense film that was an of-its-time metaphor for women’s liberation (based on a novel that was a good satiric thriller) into a meaningless, heartless, unfunny comedy with shiny stars and a once-good director? Because Hollywood has run out of ideas, that’s why. Remakes and rehashes, no matter how bad, have become de rigueur. This pedantic “Stepford” is proof positive that the moneymen backing movies these days are all soulless robots.

Sunday, Bloody Sunday (1971)
An intimate and well-crafted look at a man, a woman, and their shared male lover. Innovative in its time for it’s unflinching portrayal of unmarried sex and homosexuality, the film is far less scandalous now but still edgier than anything currently being shown on broadcast TV. The performances are strong and director John Schlesinger keeps a firm grip on the material, but over time it’s become a slowly paced artifact of a particular era, and does not continue to astound in the same way as Schlesinger’s trippy and daring “Midnight Cowboy” (1969), always fresh “Darling” (1965), and striking “Billy Liar” (1963).

The Terminal (2004)
From a story credited to Andrew Niccol (the writer-director of the underrated “Gattaca”) and a guy named Sacha Gervasi comes a screenplay by Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson. A screenplay that sucks. A screenplay that crash-lands all over the screen. A screenplay best described by one of the standard dictionary definitions of the word “terminal” itself: “Causing or ending in or approaching death.” Tom Hanks wastes a good accent and a lot of charisma playing a kindly foreign man stuck in an airport because of bureaucratic B.S. Partially based on a true story? Partially pulled out of a feces encrusted Pan Am lavatory, if you ask me. Telling the story of the real man and the real bureaucracy might have been interesting. Putting Tom hanks in a good movie would have been even better. But instead director Steven Spielberg does neither, opting for a flight plan that drags viewers through sickeningly sweet and ham-handed plot points, kindergarten-level dialogue, wooden acting courtesy of the gorgeous Catherine Zeta-Jones, one-note good guys, a two-note bad guy (Stanley Tucci valiantly, if briefly, tries to insert some complexity and sympathy into a character designed to make the actor look like an evil fool), zero chemistry between the majority of the leads, and nothing else. The one redeeming feature: frequent Wes Anderson star Kumar Pallana plays Gupta Rajan, the airport’s janitor. Pallana has a natural pizzazz that lights up the screen and “The Terminal” gives him a chance to grow as an actor, but, sadly, he’s trapped in the same bad movie as everyone else. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, having lost their minds at some point in a distant galaxy, long long ago, have now hired Jeff Nathanson—the writer behind such bad-movie classics as “Speed 2: Cruise Control,” “Rush Hour 2,” and “The Terminal”—to write a new draft of “Indiana Jones IV.” They keep mentioning that he did a good job on Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can.” Maybe, but I keep picking up the following radio signal in my false tooth: “Air Traffic Control to Flight Indiana Jones—you’re going down. Repeat. Prepare for a crash landing.”

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Remember when James Cameron would make more than one feature film per decade? Back when he was the master of new special effects and the top action director in the biz? A sci-fi badass? Those were good times. Fourteen years after “Terminator 2” debuted in theatres and the FX and story still work like a charm, putting all the cheap knock-offs and new videogame-inspired sci-fi action flicks to shame (see: “Aliens Vs. Predator,” et al). The only film in the last decade even in the running for the “T2” crown of best balls-out shoot-to-kill action and FX extravaganza with science-smarts is Paul Verhoeven’s secretly brilliant “Starship Troopers” (1997). “Pitch Black” might get a consolation prize. That’s it. So keep watching “T2” while the world waits for Cameron and Verhoeven to strike again.

True Romance (1993)
Forgive the exclamation points, cursing, and capitalization that’s about to come, but it’s warranted: When Christian Slater is on, the man is fuckin’ on. And here he is ON, goddammit. Toe-stomping turns by Patricia Arquette (dangerous and sexy!), Dennis Hopper (has never been better!), Val Kilmer (as a freakin’ ELVIS ghost/hallucination), Gary Oldman (at his scary/funny/crazy best), Brad Pitt (goddamn hilarious as a pothead loser), Christopher Walken (holy shit he’s evil!), Bronson Pinchot (a sick, brilliant turn as a sycophant cokehead), Samuel L. Jackson (blink and you’ll miss the Main Man doing his thing), Michael Rapaport (good stuff), and James Gandolfini (in an early role). Director Tony Scott doesn’t lose track of the story in the midst of the all the dazzling images and shattering cuts, as he often does with his Hollywood blockbusters. He really seems to cherish the material here, and it shows. Quentin Tarantino wrote the acerbic, violent, gut-laugh-funny screenplay with an uncredited assist by “Pulp Fiction” co-writer Roger Avary. Keen and obscure pop culture references, movie tributes, comic-book shout-outs, and frequent “Badlands” references pepper this truly spicy dish.

Woman Under the Influence (1974)
Great, raw, naturalistic performances, but John Cassavetes (in writer-director mode) is definitely an acquired taste. Bits of plot have to be carefully deciphered from the cascading dialogue and hyperrealism that reigns supreme. Actors Peter Falk, Gena Rowlands, and company are hypnotizing, but if you’re sleepy at all you’ll be so hypnotized you’ll pass out, so have some coffee and pay attention to the detailed work of acting maestros in their element.

The Woodsman (2004)
Superb acting keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout this sad, twisted tale of a man battling his desires and tainted past.

(Disclaimer: All Celebrity Cola reviews are also posted on BlogCritics.org, and I’m also submitting these reviews to the Zagat Movie Guide for consideration. If Zagat chooses any snippets from the reviews for inclusion in the Guide, then I think the fine print of the deal says Zagat will own the copyright to said words, which is fine. However, until that comes to pass, Celebrity Cola retains the right to publish all of the above content, so fear not, paranoid reader.)