REVIEW: Pulse (Jim Sonzero, 2006)

University student Mattie Webber (Kristen Bell) is desperately wanted... by the dead. In fact, thanks to her boyfriend's technological blunder, our dearly departed are viciously sucking the will to live from everyone in the world via their cell phones and wi-fi connections. Yes, you read that last sentence correctly. After co-writer Wes Craven abandoned his directorial post, television commercial director Jim Sonzero (who ridiculously refers to the project as a "cautionary tale" concerning the overuse of technology) assumed the captain's position on this remake of a 2005 Kyroshi Kurosawa film.

Now, I have not seen the original version of Pulse, but it's fairly safe to assume that this Americanized version conforms to previous Japanese horror remakes in the respect that it trades ingenuity for recycled cheap thrills. Frequent genre producer Joel Soisson (FeastDracula 2000) sounded proud when he said they've "expanded" upon the predecessor to make it "bigger and scarier." I saw the trailer in theaters, sandwiched between a Sprite ad and a Fandango ad, and thought that although it was clearly a doomed production with a preposterous premise, the terrifying visuals alone would be worth the price. Said visuals even reminded me of a recent horror remake that I love, William Malone's 1999 House on Haunted Hill, which in my opinion had rare success in expanding upon its roots and in making it uniquely and consistently chilling.

Combining tired cliches with an uninteresting onslaught of slow-moving scenes that fail to progress the storyline, Pulse succeeds in driving the horror genre, which is already on life-support quality-wise, even deeper into obscurity. The only kinship to Malone's work exists in some severely underused quick cuts that display horrific images unrelated to the subject matter (this is my favorite aspect of House on Haunted Hill and even Malone's inferior follow-up, feardotcom - the seemingly reckless carnival of creepy images spicing up the scares). I almost want to give the filmmakers credit for toying with the watch-co-eds-get-killed-in-succession formula, but their adjustments don't amount to much. Our "twist ending" isn't even a twist, really. It is merely an atypical result among Pulse's peers. Possibly the only positive to be found is in the occasionally evocative composition.

The characters, whose minimal development quickly grows tedious, are so boring that I didn't care which of them lived or died. The males in particular were so annoying I wanted them to die simply to get them out of the movie. And to think that these archetypes are conceived to reflect and relate to modern day youth. Maybe a plague of ghosts who download themselves onto these kids' iTunes wouldn't be so bad after all.

Even if you're a horror-buff you should probably skip Pulse. If you've seen the trailer, you've seen everything you need to see and you've probably experienced more terror than the film itself has to offer. It'll take me a while to justify paying full price for it, but at least it helped me prove once again that negative reviews are so much easier to write than positive ones.


REVIEW: Angel Heart (Alan Parker, 1987)

Harry Angel is a candid 1950's private eye who's just been handed a high-paying gig locating a man named Favorite. Simple, right? As people connected to Favorite begin turning up brutally murdered, Heart begins to realize that he's in miles over his head. Mickey Rourke stars in this 1987 film from Alan Parker (Pink Floyd's The Wall) that features appearances by Lisa Bonet, Robert De Niro and Charlotte Rampling.

Like, say, Danny Boyle, Parker has a reputation for taking a different approach to each film he does. Something he and cinematographer Michael Seresin accomplish masterfully is the hard-boiled noir look. As Parker put it, they were making a black-and-white film in color. Furthermore, the New Orleans scenes were physically uncomfortable to watch not because of the subject matter (not to imply that the subject matter was at all settling) but because the actors appeared sweaty and exhausted under the unforgiving sun - a unique display in film.

While well conceived, Angel Heart failed to entice me despite its constant sense of mystery. The clues throughout don't seem to amount to much since we don't know what the case is to begin with. This is similar in fashion to The Machinist, which builds to something interesting for the duration but would be much more intriguing if we knew at least a smidgen more about what it was. I'm definitely one to believe in film as art in the respect that it should be accepted as it is and not expected to aspire to be anything else (I call it "the Forrest Gump complex"), but I've never thought that requiring a second viewing is a good quality. It is true that I may enjoy and understand Angel Heart significantly more on another run-through, but after the first I have to admit I'm not eager to venture there again any time soon.

Angel Heart clearly generates a mixed reaction from its audience - some people love it (going as far as calling it the greatest horror film of the 20th century and De Niro's best performance next to Raging Bull) and others, like myself, are more lukewarm. Indifferent, even. I would not discourage viewing it though - one thing is for sure, it's far from being a bad film.


REVIEW: Prairie Home Companion (Robert Altman, 2006)

Altman is true to form here despite declining health, weaving an often delightful and eclectic one-night stand with an all-star cast. He had one of my favorites, Paul Thomas Anderson, helping him out. Anderson has always been a notorious Altman fan and seeing them working together is chilling in all the right ways.

The music is truly the highlight of the proceedings, featuring fun folk songs sung by actual members of the original show (including, of course, Garrison Keillor himself) and the ensemble of top-notch actors. I, for one, rushed to iTunes to download the soundtrack. Also well worth mentioning is the way Keillor's script bypasses reality to have one of his famous creations, Guy Noir the sly yet clumsy private eye, backstage and interacting with people.

Most of the cast from John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson to Meryl Streep and Lilly Tomlin were very impressive as per usual, while Maya Rudolph and Kevin Kline stole many a scene. The only minor disappointments acting-wise came in the form of phoned-in performances from Tommy Lee Jones and Lindsay Lohan.

Give Companion a shot. It makes you feel good inside without trying to push forward a hoaky message. It's just there and it's wonderful if you allow it to be, and if your family has lived with Keillor's dry wit occasionally in the background as mine has, you're sure to find something to appreciate.


REVIEW: Mission: Impossible III (JJ Abrams, 2006)

There is no better instance than Mission: Impossible 3 to coin the tagline, "This time it's personal." Not only are the stakes elevated to greater proportions when our rogue hero, Ethan Hunt's, fiance is threatened, but Tom Cruise himself has been working to make this idea come to life for years now - it's become quite personal. Getting the production to mesh with actors and directors coming and going was beginning to seem like an impossible mission in and of itself, but finally J.J. Abrams, the man behind two hit television shows I've never watched, took the helm and made that baby work! The final product is an impressive and surprisingly unique actioner that is by far the best in its franchise.

M:I:III is Cruise-driven from many aspects, obviously so for people who followed its venture through production limbo. What I found fun during the film beyond its adrenaline-surging sequences though were all the throwbacks to Cruisers of the past! I may be reaching on a few of these, but I was getting some wind from the likes of Vanilla Sky (the opening credits party scene was permeated with David Aames charm,) Eyes Wide Shut (the "I'll tell you everything" line,) Top Gun (motorcycle shots)and even The Last Samurai (shouting in Shanghai,) among others. I've also heard that once it comes out on DVD, people are going to play drinking games with it, taking a shot every time someone says "Rabbit's Foot" - it would definitely make for an interesting night.

That's not all the fun you'll get out of M:I:III though - not in the least. I have honestly never before been so into an action film that my heart is racing, my body is tense and I'm completely enveloped in the cinematic experience like I was here. It helped that it was one of my most highly anticipated films of the year, but J.J. Abrams was not kidding around - this is a seriously well-made movie featuring incredible effects, jaw-dropping stunt work, nuanced performances from a cool-as-an-igloo cast, perfect cinematography, eclectic and effective editing and some crane shots that would put Michael Bay and Steven Spielberg to shame. The action is just about non-stop, and if you think you've seen it all in the trailers, babe, you ain't seen nothin' yet. Sure there are the killer money shots, primarily the famous one featuring Cruise being blown sideways into a car, but just about every high action moment could be considered a tentpole shot for most other films in the genre. The premises and situations of the Mission: Impossible films are always preposterous, but somehow Abrams, in a completely different direction from John Woo's Mission: Impossible 2, makes the world delightfully tangible.

As mentioned above, the cast is great. Most notably we've got the thankfully (and finally) now-well-known Philip Seymour Hoffman playing an apathetic slime who we just adore to hate. Michelle Monaghan is very well cast in the role of the hero's lover, while Keri Russell is very nice to have around (her role is... well... just see the movie. It's good stuff.) Jonathan Rhys-Meyers plays a role that basically anyone could have played, but it's just plain cool that Rhys-Meyers is in its shoes. Then we've got Billy Crudup, Laurence Fishbourne and several others that flesh out a very good action ensemble.

So is it a must-see? Of course not. But if you're either a Cruise fan, a fan of the first two films or you're just in the mood for a summer blockbuster, M:I:III is the perfect popcorn movie, packed to the gills with top-of-the-line action and excitement with a healthy dose of hilarious comic relief.


REVIEW: Laurel Canyon (Lisa Cholodenko, 2003)

Sam is a studying psychiatrist whose move closer to the hospital in which he'll be serving his residency brings him to live with his mother, Jane. With him is his fiance, Alex, who, to Sam's dismay, becomes enamored with Jane's free rock n' roll lifestyle. An excellent ensemble cast ushers to life this quest to find balance between decadence and moderation.

On the surface, Laurel Canyon is a simple story about a love pentagon, but when we look deeper into the ingredients, the re-treading of writer/director Lisa Cholodenko's (High Art, Cavedweller) screenplay brings other intricacies to light. We are presented with morally parallel characters who we can relate to on respective levels, and from that platform we take off contrasting the core pleasures of life with the security of established society.

Production Designer for the film is Catherine Hardwicke, director of Thirteen and notable production designer for such films as Tank Girl, Three Kings, and Vanilla Sky. Her work definitely shows, as Laurel Canyon's visual style is a pleasure to look at. The direction could stand a stronger spice, but Cholodenko herself admits that she was caught up in her own writing and prefers to work solely as a director for someone else's script.

The five key roles are accomplished with comprehensive, solid performances. Christian Bale, like it or not one of the most talented actors working today, delivers yet another uncompromised character. Natascha McElhone continues to be one of the better female performers out there while her character's competition, Kate Beckinsale, proves to all the non-believers that she can indeed act - very well at that. The unlikely rock star is played by emerging star Alessandro Nivola alongside the consistently impressive Frances McDormand, who attains stellar sexiness despite occasionaly reminding me of Willem Dafoe.

Laurel Canyon may not appeal to everyone, but it has potential to really strike a chord with some. What it certainly does is bring up some provoking issues about some of the most important things in life. I enjoyed it and if you're at a loss, it's well worth a rent.


REVIEW: Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children (Tetsuya Nomura, 2005)

Two years after Cloud and company saved Midgar from the threat of Sephiroth (the Darth Vader of gaming), a tale chronicled in the epic video game Final Fantasy VII, a new chapter is unfolding. Cloud, who left his new home with friends Tifa and Barret in Nebleheim to live in seclusion and battle his inner demons in his departed love, Aeris' church, has recieved a plea from Rufus, the former owner of evil energy giant Shinra, to protect him from a snot-nosed newcomer named Kadaj and his two cohorts Loz and Yazoo who are searching for their "mother." Confused yet? All the key characters from quite possibly the best video game ever are back to defend their planet and tie up loose ends in this aftermath story.

Advent Children was released in Japan in 2004 but its American release date was postponed repeatedly since then. Rumor has it the filmmakers were searching for precisely the right voice talent to perform the dubbing (they ended up with, among many others, two easily recognizable actresses - Rachel Leigh Cook and Mena Suvari - voicing Tifa and Aeris, respectively). Due to this flirtacious release, anticipation for the film on these shores has risen feverishly among fans. Since I did not pre-order the DVD, I made sure I woke up early on release day to ensure myself a copy. The magic of the Final Fantasy games is that while they carry accordingly fantastic storylines, they have potential to be pleasantly unfocused when it comes to plot, allowing the player to grow emotionally attached to the characters. By the time I finished the seventh installment in the series that this film picks up after, I felt like I was part of the surrogate family of indelible characters featured within. With such raw emotion involved in a situation like this in which I have little to no control over the progression of events, a sequel - especially one that would only take up 110 minutes of my time as opposed to an entire winter break from high school - was more than welcomed into my Aeris-adoring arms.

I was overjoyed to unwrap the DVD and pop it in my player, and it provided me with a great ride with familiar characters and only a few speedbumps along the way. The first thing I had to get over was the occasionally anime-esque dialogue. Despite my love for Æon FluxBurst Angel and, well, Final Fantasy, It takes a lot for me to invest in most anime (well, okay, Flux isn't Japanese... Korean/American fusion... but still). Thankfully the dialogue in question is easy to get past, a fact most likely attributable to the utterly fantastic computer animation that is impossible to argue with. This is by far the best CGI feature I've seen to date, and to think - it's not even cutting edge anymore... it premiered almost two years ago!

Advent Children is basically one long action scene but it's punctuated enough that it doesn't grow tiresome. The slick action is handled as only an animated film could handle it (live action has tried, read: Matrix Reloaded's first multi-Smith fight, Van Helsing's Mr. Hyde bout) and is always fun as hell to watch. I'm glad I decided to pull my comfy chair up nice and close to the TV screen for it. There's also a rousing sequence during the Bahamut battle in which all the characters we had yet to see make their entrances - Barret (the Mr. T of the crew) with his chaingun, Cid with his bo and airship, Yuffie with her whatever-that-is and Red XIII carrying the excitable Cait Sith on his back (a welcome dose of comedic relief.) Where Children is packed to its chocobo gills in action, however, it could really stand to have some more quiet scenes between the characters to further develop their relationships and give us that extra 'oopmh' of caring when we see them fight. And yeah, I know chocobos don't have gills, I just wanted to throw them in this review somehow.

While at times the film seems fairly random and aimless - a poor excuse of a story to get our gang back for another adventure - the payoff is exactly what I was looking for. With familiar locations and score pieces (and even the level-up sound effect cleverly utilized as a ringtone) to make my heart hark back to the emotions I felt while playing the game, there's no way I wasn't going to enjoy myself. Along with all that though, was a much desired learning of what came to pass between Cloud and Aeris.

If you're a fan of the video game series, Advent Children is an absolute must for you. Otherwise, you might find yourself a bit bored and certainly confused (previous knowledge of the material is a requisite here - the film is extremely authentic in that regard). I'll be enjoying many more viewings of this one as time goes on.


REVIEW: Silent Hill (Cristophe Gans, 2006)

In 1999 a video game was released that would evolve the face of thrills for everyone holding a controller. This game would also inspire many to follow suit by creeping into the minds of its players with unforgiving, insane visuals and soundtracks rivaling the eeriness of Time's intro from Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. Though it intrigued me, I never actually played Silent Hill or any of its sequels due to the high price of gaming, but apparently it was a big hit. The film adaptation of the original installment follows Rose, mother of Sharon (whose name you'll hear screamed about ninety times,) a little girl with a sleepwalking problem. During Sharon's subconscious constitutionals she repeats the name of the titular town, so Rose gets the bright idea to take her there. The excursion turns into a nightmare when Sharon disappears and Rose is subjected to twisted scenery and throngs of unusual, demonic creatures. Christophe Gans, director of Le Pacte de Loups, helms the hot-ticket film starring Radha Mitchell, Jodelle Ferland, Sean Bean (in a painfully useless role), Laurie Holden (who looks like a younger Jane Lynch) and Henry Townshend (who looks like he desperately wants to be Christopher Meloni).

The imagery in Silent Hill is begging to have been conjured in the 1920's. German Expressionism akin to The Cabinet of Dr. CaligariNosferatu and some ingenius shorts from the era would have done this film a huge number of favors. The creepy creatures of the darkness, especially Pyramid Head, would have been fantastic if transported back in time and mastered to life by someone like Robert Wiene. That's not to say they aren't cool as they are, because they most certainly are, it's that the modern feel of the film doesn't seem to do them as much justice as they deserve (though it gives a valiant and highly memorable effort).

The film's biggest issue lies in its script, which feels like it was proof-read by Gomer Pyle. We are immediately thrust into the main characters' family during an attempt at a tense moment which allows us no time to care for them. There is a brief development device used in the second scene between mother and daughter, but it only makes the one appearance and oozes with transparency. Even toward the end when the jumbled storyline is coming together and the true evil is rearing its head, another unwanted device arises to help the audience side against the revealed villain. Despite the fact that this device, set in a scene vaguely reminiscent of The Pit and the Pendulum, was executed very well, it would have worked better if the driving storyline was used in its place. Again, I'm unfamiliar with the source material and am unsure if what I'm referring to as a "device" was in fact a part of the original story, but when adaptations are done in this fashion, liberties must be taken.

Though the production seems misguided in many places, I can't help but show it respect for its great integrity. As several folks in my showing agreed with me to the extent of our knowledge, there has been no film like this before. Little girl with black hair aside, it doesn't conform to past horror successes and really develops its own style that hits more than it misses. Even when it misses it's still fun (zombie-things that think they're in West Side Story? Yes, please!) Some of this unique style might be attributed to its origins - some of the scenes seem like they could have easily been cinematics you get to watch after completing certain tasks in the game or reaching certain locations like Grand Hotel's room 111.

The TV-spots were really what made me want to see Silent Hill, which is strange because I usually despise TV-spots. Seeing the strange creatures really did it for me, and I got chills every time the words "I am the reaper" were exclaimed in that demonic voice (which was not in the actual film, much to my chagrin but much to the happiness of others who felt it was cheesy). I was secretly hoping for something the likes of the House on Haunted Hill remake from the master of freely psychotic cinema, William Malone. While I do like the original House quite a bit, Malone's take is a total blast of maniacal terror and easily one of my favorites in its genre. Silent Hill didn't perform to those standards but the payoffs were more than worth it. The finale is something that won't soon leave my mind - a must-see sequence for any horror buff.

I am certainly not disappointed. In fact Silent Hill has lingered quite nicely in the ol' noggin. If I were to recommend any course of action with it, I would say wait for DVD and enjoy it with some popcorn and a few friends.


REVIEW: Ellie Parker (Scott Coffey, 2005)

In 2001 Scott Coffey made a short film called Ellie Parker concerning an hour or so in the life of a struggling actress in Los Angeles. In the title role of the film was Naomi Watts, an actress Coffey met when he acted alongside her in Tank Girl (as her half-man half-kangaroo love interest, no less) and Mulholland Drive. A few years later, the the two talents reunited to expand the 20-minute short into a feature and re-release it. Watts had become significantly more famous in the elapsed time having starred in several popular and highly acclaimed films, but she was happy to return to the Ellie character and further develop the story of this neurotic, audition-hopping woman, her relationships and psychological tribulations.

Coffey's barren budget made for an extremely loose shooting schedule (if you could call it a schedule) and he's very lucky to have the full film. The crew consisted of him and only him with the exception of a few days on which he had a sound guy or an extra camera op. The genuinely handheld, practically lit style here works a lot better than the feigned handheld style of films like The Bourne Supremacy. With this style we can relate immediately and feel like we are watching a character who is keeping her head above water financially while being lost in L.A.'s small-scale acting world. Much of the cinematography is improvised therefore giving the impression of a home video with dramatic thrust.

In one of the scenes directly from the original short, a casting director reminds the lead character that the film she's trying out for will be shot on a DV camera, so her performance needs to be raw. This is a perfect set-up for what lies ahead while Watts gives herself over to Ellie, uncompromisingly portraying her core elements and most private moments. She is given a lot to do and a lot of freedom to do it with, and makes for the key reason the film is recommendable - without her, there would be no film. Complimenting her performance is the aforementioned home video style of the piece - it is almost as if the camera is the frenetic utensil with which she writes her diary and what we are exposed to is what she writes, though not as directly as in something like Ben Coccio's Zero Day. Other recognizable actors featured are Mark Pellegrino, Johanna Ray and Chevy Chase.

While the film is interesting enough to watch thanks to Watts, however, it doesn't leave any lasting impressions. From Ellie's perspective I feel I have learned something about the grind of the low-level audition process, but not much else. It also lacks a beginning and end even though it seems to tease at the idea that it contains a complete journey. We could come into the story at any point, thrown in a bit of character development where necessary and get the same results.

Ellie Parker is worth the rent to see what it's all about but probably best left as a one-night stand.


REVIEW: Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005)

The cultural phenomenon that barely anyone has actually experienced - that is Brokeback Mountain. Its more famous dialogue, musical score, wardrobe... all of the core elements have quickly become engrained in pop America despite the box office numbers not quite matching the hype. Because of this, it seems a challenge to view the film without thinking of it as "the gay cowboy movie." Thankfully the task of seeing beyond that diminutive label is made easy in Ang Lee's latest critically acclaimed display of versatility.

Brokeback's first third, in which the lead characters tend sheep and develop their relationship on the title location, feels thinly spread. Not all that much happens - even on the visual front - but ultimately we are given an idea of what it might have been like to be there, bored, hungry and lonely. The greatest quality of the film does begin to take shape though, and that is the representation of relationships. As the surprisingly captivating story's runtime ticks away, we watch the two men over years and years grow closer together and further apart, their wives and in-laws and their interesting dynamics and most sentimentally and memorable, their children growing up and reacting to the situations surrounding their coming of age.

Going in I was hesitant. The theatrical trailer seemed to have given everything away, robbing the experience of intrigue. In that case I was glad to see it pulling through right off the bat with a uniquely paced and dialogue-free opening scene. That trend continued and even though I knew most of the major plot points from the advertising campaign, it was the humble stylings and underbelly of the film's emotion that kept me interested.

One of the more widely noted (and Oscar nominated) aspects of Brokeback is the acting. Overall it didn't impress me to an Oscar-worthy level, but it was undoubtedly good and showed range from all involved. My favorite performance actually came from Anne Hathaway (who also surprised me by looking so yummy.) She was instantly winning, commanding her character and Jake Gylenhaal's and officially graduating from her Disney days. I have to briefly mention Randy Quaid's performance, which has become default conversation on the topic of Brokeback lately. He brings depth to a fairly one-dimensional villian-esque character similar to Dustin Hoffman's performance in Finding Neverland, but it remains now as just another bit of the film tainted by publicity due to Quaid's ridiculous lawsuit which you can read more about here.

So yes, although it is the butt of more jokes than Ryan Seacrest (seriously, why do people hate that guy!? He's sharp as a tack) for its subject matter, Brokeback Mountain pulls through and exists as a fine movie - it earned a spot on my DVD shelf, anyway.


REVIEW: The Girl Next Door (Luke Greenfield, 2004)

Great friends, reckless abandon, endearing memories... that was high school. Or was it? A lot of us feel like we missed out on all that... that those four years (give or take) were all wasted either in the classroom or some other insignificant hovel. The opening montage of The Girl Next Door, set to Queen and David Bowie's excellent song "Under Pressure" (the first great song in a soundtrack full of them from "Dopes to Infinity" by Monster Magnet to Donovan's "Atlantis,") perfectly establishes the unforgettable nature of high school as it was for the "other kids" and introduces us to our main character, Matthew, the soon-to-be-graduated Senior (Emile Hirsch, who plays a key part in making the film so easy to relate to,) as he happens upon the epiphany that he missed out. New mainstreamer Luke Greenfield directs what could have easily been (and actually began conceptualization as) a cheap sex comedy but turns out to be something much more special.

The early character development, scene setting and commencing of the plot are handled surprisingly well with flare original to the genre. I couldn't help but be reminded of Dazed and Confused. The only complaint I can muster about this first third of the film, a minor complaint that lingers throughout and applies to a vast multitude of cinema, is that the character interactions are often too arranged, making the blocking and directing obvious and taking away from the realism factor. In the hands of someone like Dazed and Confused director Richard Linklater (is there anyone like him?) this would have been a non-issue, but of course considering his helming as an afterthought is frivolous. Greenfield, discovered through his 2000 short film, The Right Hook and utilizing an array of misdirection techniques in this outing, proves more than capable and does the movie good. He does the movie so good in fact, that much like Roger Kumble his name attached to a future picture would generate interest for me despite the subject matter. To daringly relate him to another director, I'll even add that he reminded me of a young Cameron Crowe in spots.

The comedy, running a unique path between strong sexuality and romantic drama, takes a strange curve from the story I expected it to follow, a simple scenario about a boy vying for love, and reveals our girl next door's secret: she's a porn star. At first I wasn't sure about what seemed to be a devastating deviation from the path of goodness that had been traversed so far, but it quickly proved itself as an intriguing amplification. We are introduced to Kelly, a porn producer played by Timothy Olyphant, a villain who is just too cool to hate. He takes our hero in as a protege, changing the film's gears in favor of even more fun.

While the porn angle does thrust the film into new worlds, it is also highly fantasized. Greenfield openly admits that he crafted the scene at the Adult Film Convention (and the rest of the envisioning of the pornography business for that matter) after his imagination and not the actual event that he's attended twice, but the imagined portrayal comes across as an obvious exaggeration, featuring dancing starlets on stages and even a back room whose goings-on border orgy. This is just another minor complaint, however, because the scene itself plays out very well and provides some of the best belly laughs from the comic duo Eli and Klitz, played by Chris Marquette (who drops an excellent Godfather II reference) and Paul Dano, two very funny young dudes who really deliver here.

I finally understand the wide adoration of Elisha Cuthbert, though I am still lost when it comes to pronouncing her name. Her performance here rivals starlets of the past such as Phoebe Cates. The on-screen pairing of Cuthbert and Hirsch comes through with great results - their eyes communicate angst with perfection. The smaller roles of the supporting cast are also reputable, taken up by actors like Timothy Bottoms (That's My Bush!) Donna Bullock, the magnificently eyebrow-less Harris Laskaway and Julie Osburn. And yeah, I actually did recognize one real porn actor featured in a cameo role, Steven St. Croix (A.K.A. "Captain Hook") credited as "Karate Guy in Porn Film."

With the R rating (or lack of rating on DVD,) The Girl Next Door supersedes its potential teen-flick status and becomes an unforgiving and honest film that is downright fun with a healthy helping of sentimentality. As Greenfield states in his commentary track, his young life didn't seem exciting and eventful like the lives of his subjects, so he has "to live vicariously" through them, and he has given us a fine way to do that ourselves with this film.


REVIEW: Inside Man (Spike Lee, 2006)

"My name is Dalton Russell. Pay strict attention to what I say because I choose my words carefully and I never repeat myself." This is how Inside Man, Spike Lee's new film and most mainstream effort to date, begins with Clive Owen staring point-blank into the camera - similar in fashion to The Libertine's opening, but executed here with a bit of extra forty-acre flare. Those first lines are fair warning, because as the 129-minute film carries on you'll absolutely have to abide by them to fully appreciate the intricately woven heist plot.

Much of the critical reception for this film has been excellent and loaded with praise of Lee's upheaval of the genre by delivering originality in spades. The praise is dead on - no matter how many times you've watched Dog Day Afternoon or how many episodes of CSI you've TiVoed, this will be a brand new experience that will keep you intelligently guessing until the end. Along with the fresh plot layout and character development, Lee also brings suspense through subtlety. The first person to notice something amiss at the bank in question is a dopey cop who calls in the situation and investigates further, only to find himself on the business end of a handgun, being warned that if anyone comes near the front door they'll be shot. Soon afterward we see an arrival sequence in which four cop cars, an armored vehicle and several sniper squads barge into the street, nearly breaking the proximity rule. The subtle effect Lee adds is a shot from inside the bank, giving us the robbers' view of the situation and elevating the tension to new levels. I'm sure there are several more of these brilliant directorial decisions throughout the entire piece, but I wouldn't have consciously picked up on them due to the unfamiliar atmosphere generated by the film and its progressive developments that kept my mind at work.

Some of the choices made by the filmmakers do seem out of place or innefective, such as the overrused slow-pan close-up intended to generate false suspense. Lee's signature actor-on-a-platform-attached-to-the-camera shots (which I would refer to more briefly were I able to recall their proper name) are also present and occasionally awkward in this context. I'm merely noting these as things that could have been better, though. They are barely worthy of being called blemishes.

Christopher Plummer has been showing up more and more lately in films like Alexander and The New World and his presence is more than welcome as his small yet pivotal performances are always excellent, and he shows through with another well nuanced character here. Also featured is Willem Dafoe in a non-controversial role that wouldn't have been nearly as cool if it weren't Dafoe in its shoes. The three major players, Denzel Washington, Clive Owen and Jodie Foster deliver as expected. I've never been a fan of Washington's natural cool, but he was working for me as the new detective, probably best described as a knight in tainted armor. Owen gives me another reason to like him while Foster finally proves that I have reason to like her. The remainder of the cast does its job well, considering more major roles from those of Kim Director and Chiwetel Ejiofor to the minor ones of the hostages.

Something I really liked a lot about Inside Man was actually the end credits. They were laid out in a manner that was fair and all-encompassing, showing Spike Lee's director credit not on an individual card but instead on a list among the other important filmmakers involved. Even the intern program and orchestra were credited, something I haven't seen (or noticed, at least) in the past. The song playing during the credits, Chaiyya Chaiyya, is also super cool.

Inside Man isn't something that requires a big screen, but I definitely recommend checking it out eventually. It's solid as a rock and there's sure to be at least something you'll enjoy.

I noticed at the end of the film that the man in Denzel's apartment is holding a bottle of Da Bomb, a drink introduced in Lee's 2001 masterpiece, Bamboozled. It's Da Bomb baby, Bomb - It makes you get your freak on! I didn't see, however, the other Bamboozled product - Timmi Hillnigger clothing. That's not to say it wasn't there!


REVIEW: V for Vendetta (James McTeigue, 2006)

In futuristic Britain, under totalitarian rule, Evey (Natalie Portman) is rescued by a mysterious, Guy Fawkes mask-wearing terrorist (Hugo Weaving) after being caught out after curfew. As she slowly learns more about him, she becomes tangled in his revolutionary plot to take down the current government. Adapted from a graphic novel and produced by Andy and Larry Wachowski, V For Vendetta is the feature directorial debut for James McTeigue and it lives up to the massive hype.

McG, when tying the bow on his commentary track for Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, says that to make a film contemplating the human condition is a great thing, but making a film that forgets it is also great. Vendetta finds a perfect middle ground, being an ever-intelligent and politically meaningful experience while also being insanely entertaining. There were several times when I actually had to quell the urge welling up inside to stand and cheer - moments justified by those two excellent qualities of the film culminating in sights and sounds to conjure pure exhilaration.

I was not all that excited to see this film, but I had confidence that I'd like it enough to go opening day. What really took me aback was how much I loved it. The construct was utilized superbly, particularly with the Evey character serving as the consensus' point of relation. After a purposefully over-dramatic display from the man who calls himself "V," she utters, "Are you like, a crazy person?" and from that moment on the film exists as a picture of a dystopian future with a raw and exponentially tangible sense that it will indeed be reality, despite the dramatic nature of certain scenes. Evey's further hesitance will land on target for people who might see V as a villian to begin with - him technically being a murderer and terrorist.

The film always kept me guessing with its story progression and filming techniques - a feat rarely accomplished anymore. The decisions made as to how the story is wrapped up perfectly fit the meaning behind it all and form a lasting impression that is not likely to soon be forgotten.

V for Vendetta is one of a kind - an enigma of a film that must be seen in theaters. I may say from time to time that a movie 'blew me away,' and those films are, of course, excellent in their own respective ways, but V nearly literally did just that.


REVIEW: The Libertine (Lawrence Dunmore, 2005)

Enter the promiscuous John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester - writer with an aggressive inclination for debauchery and drink, living in the post-plague 17th century. He is summoned back to England by King Charles II after a year in exile and takes a struggling actress under his indulgent wing. Johnny Depp adds another magnificent performance to his collection in the long-shelved film adaptation of Steven Jeffreys' biographical play.

The Weinsteins nail a homer! After all the fantastic productions they accomplished with Miramax such as Scorsese's Gangs of New York, I was psyched to learn they were moving out from Disney's ever business-minded shadow (which will hopefully dissipate with Steve Jobs as a major stockholder) with TWC, The Weinstein Company. At the outset of 2006, however, their schedule was loaded with silly films that were the opposite of promising. Though in the midst of all the computer-animated kids flicks and redundant romantic comedies, The Libertine must have been passed over in the listing - possibly because it was filmed and set aside for about a year - but it comes through now as an excellent surprise.

The lead actor, who needs no introduction, should be draw enough to the newly wide-released film that was supposedly on limited release November 23rd (a date that prevents me from saying it is the first great film of 2006 a la The New World and Match Point) but he is worthily accompanied by the eclectically excellent John Malkovich (who also serves as co-producer,) the eternally miraculous and wonderful Samantha Morton and emerging star Rosamund Pike (Die Another Day, Doom.)

It came as no surprise to learn that The Libertine is based on a play of the same name because it feels very much like an elaborate stage show - it is in fact loosely framed with the idea of a play being written about the Earl. Steven Jeffreys, who penned the original piece, brilliantly adapts it for the screen. He channels Shakespeare with lush, darkly humorous dialogue and story progression, kicked off by Depp's spellbinding opening soliloquy. The subsequent scenes flow on as long as they need to, similar to those of Angels in America, developing a detached, dream-like trance for the audience.

The realistic, Oscar-worthy costuming provides subject matter that brings the dizzyingly involving and granular photography to a more intriguing level. We are given a realistic look into the feigning glamour of the times from long wigs to pasty makeup, transparently offset by the surrounding murk of the streets and brothels.

Director Lawrence Dunmore's debut is not to be missed in theaters. See it before it gets stuck in smaller venues - the big screen/surround sound experience is highly recommended and well worth it. Join me tomorrow when I enjoy it again!


REVIEW: Just Friends (Roger Kumble, 2005)

Chris Brander, widely classified as a dweeb in high school, has shaped up over the past ten years and become a major record executive with a glamorous life. When he mistakenly returns to his hometown, he runs into his old best friend, Jamie Palimino, and the strong crush he's harbored for her resurfaces. Many obstacles stand in his way to love, though - competing men, a pesky ex and the dreaded "friend zone." Ryan Reynolds, Amy Smart, Anna Faris and Chris Klein join up for a youthful romantic comedy under the helming of Sweetest Thing director Roger Kumble.

I've loved The Sweetest Thing for years. The cast of that film clearly lauded Kumble's efforts there, but I was still wary that while he did do very well, he wouldn't have a film worth watching without the excellent screenplay writing of Nancy Pimentel. Just Friends thankfully proves me wrong, but not to a vast extent. It's a very passable experience worth watching, but it's no diamond in the rough.

Beyond the acting, which is consistent with the cast members' respective filmographies while also being uniquely funny, the effort that was possibly exerted in the entire production, pre- and post- included, is somewhat questionable. The supporting characters are annoyingly over-the-top caricatures, the majority of the jokes fall flat on their prosthetic-enhanced faces, the sound mixing is downright awful... yet there is something that somehow clicks about this comedy that makes it flow. Compared to movies like Two Weeks Notice that are burdened with cliche, Just Friends blends the predictability of its genre with an irreverent cartoon style that I, for one, was engaged with.

As mentioned before and is worth mentioning again, the cast really takes this movie to a different level than it probably deserves while also serving as delicious eye candy for those interested. Ryan Reynolds has quickly become a reliable comic actor with his off-beat timing. Here, his quips joust and mesh perfectly with the off-the-wall acting of underestimated beauty Anna Faris, featured here in possibly her craziest role yet. I have never been keen on Amy Smart, but she succeeded in winning me over the instant she stepped on screen - a worthy romantic interest. I've also never been so hot about Chris Klein (except for those five minutes in which I thought I liked the Rollerball remake) and I'm still not, but he pulled off a great jackass. Even the young Christopher Marquette gives an impressive comedic performance.

If you want to support your happy mood or you need a pick-me-up, Just Friends is a live-action cartoon to cozy up to with a warm blanket and some hot cocoa. You're sure to enjoy at least some portion of it, and you won't be bored. Make it a day-date.


REVIEW: Sex: The Annabel Chong Story (Gough Lewis, 1999)

Grace Quek, born in Singapore and raised in London, was at one time the most famous famous adult film star in the world. After starring in many films under the stage name Annabel Chong, she attempted to have sex with 300 men in a single day - a feat that would double the record set by a sex worker in Amsterdam. Ex-boyfriend Gough Lewis follows her experiences after the 1995 event in this acclaimed documentary that uncovers her motivations and delves into her deeper, more private side.

The college student and unique personality that is Grace easily remains herself with the trailing camera, providing an authentic glimpse into her daily life. Issues of gender equality, depression and especially sexuality are explored and attacked through her experiences. She lives how she wants, has a worthy message to deliver, and meets with plenty of opposition along the way.

Adult stars such as Jasmin St. Claire and Michael J. Coxx have appearances, expressing their own respective takes on Grace. I get the feeling some of their words and actions have been taken somewhat out of context, but they round out the film's expressed viewpoints nontheless. Also heard from are Grace's parents and friends, some of whom are ignorant to her status in adult cinema. Between these people and Grace herself, we join an emotional journey of social acceptance versus social change.

Surely provocative conversation - and potential steamy action - will be the result of viewing this well-assembled film. The issues involved are similar to that of Laurel Canyon, this time presented in a different context - reality. Why is sex so foreign to mainstream culture? It is the ultimate happiness. It is the ultimate human purpose... yet it is rare and often shunned. Grace suggests that it is far from being bad, and goes further with her core intention in proving that women are just as capable as men in being sexually superior.

During the event that set this media focus in motion, Grace managed to reach 251 men before submitting to pain. Her views, alternative to the moral majority, have in turn been rightly made public. If you are intrigued by the real world of adult film and open to exploring sexuality, you won't go wrong with the eye-opening Sex: The Annabel Chong Story.


REVIEW: Ultraviolet (Kurt Wimmer, 2006)

In the distant future, disease has separated humanity into two cultures: The familiar breed and a new, physically and mentally enhanced vampire type. These transformations are taking place in growing numbers, and the sub-species is now being viewed as a threat by the government. Milla Jovovich stars as an enhanced being who protects a child caught up in the societal feud in Kurt Wimmer's directorial follow-up to 2002's Equilibrium.

If you've known me for a while, you probably know I'm a sucker for ass-kicking-chicks flicks. Tank Girl, Underworld and Jovovich's other slick ass-kicker, Resident Evil: Apocalypse are all proud selections from my DVD shelves (Screen Gems does my body good,) so it should come as no surprise that I was highly anticipating Ultraviolet's release. My growing excitement as the release date crept up bordered in giddiness. Now that I've seen the movie... will it end up among my DVDs? Only if I'm bored in Best Buy one day.

Wimmer's creation starts strong with an enticing credits sequence involving excellent comic book art, but my heart did a swan-dive the instant I saw Cameron Bright's name. I had no idea the blander than bland child from Godsend and Birth was a supporting cast member, and had I known it would have most certainly been a hesitation. He bugs me beyond belief with his expressionless deliveries - downers for any film he appears in. As soon as the credits ended, however, I was shown that his inclusion would not be the worst aspect of what was to follow, simply described as a bastard hybrid between The Transporter and the film adaptation of Aeon Flux.

It's baffling that some people must have thought the ideas brought to life in the movie were good ones. Sure, there are a few interesting ideas such as the Gravity Recalibrator device, but they suffer in their murky confines, remaining underused with leftover potential. The first half of the film overloads itself with other gadgets, leaving us with a lot of colloquial sci-fi lines akin to the parody ad from in Thank You For Smoking, "Thank goodness we invented the whatever device!"

I cannot yet say whether the soft resolution of the cinematography was necessary for the computer-effects heavy compositions - which are nicely symmetrical but ultimately fail through poor execution - or if it was simply an unavoidable mishap - one that leaves some scenes at a complete loss (I.E. Violet explaining her tattoos). What I can say is that they are headache-inducing and they visually destroy several close-ups. The actors' features are lost in the odd streaks that look like someone poured water on an oil painting before it dried.

Possibly the most disturbing thing about the holographic production of Ultraviolet is the script. It features some of the worst writing I have ever heard, loaded with sorely dramatic repeat-takes (a strong peeve of mine) and awful lines that aren't even so bad they're good. For example, the title character says with an unavoidable bland tone when faced with an opposition of about 20 soldiers, "You are all going to die." I'm quaking. The final battle between good and evil impending, the villian (Nick Chinlund) says "It is on," to which Violet replies, "Yeah it is." I can really feel the tension!

At its core, Ultraviolet is in the right spot, but it relies too heavily on gimmick, shrouding the good buried deep inside. If you're into Jovovich, as I definitely am, you won't be let down but you certainly won't find anything else of merit. Thankfully what flair is there promises to be well worth a few rewatches on DVD due in part to eye-candy but also to a massive so-bad-it's-good factor.


REVIEW: Finding Neverland (Marc Forster, 2004)

J.M. Barrie, a playwrite down on his luck, comes into something special when he befriends a widow and her three children. His imaginative adventures with the family become inspiration to pen one of the most famous theatrical works of all time. The true story of the author of Peter Pan unfolds with Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet taking the lead.

Someone hit my snooze button. Ever since this movie got me snoring I haven't been able to dream up something creative enough to help me forget it. For nearly two hours we are listlessly bombarded with proper British accents and boring mellodrama. Jane Austen would scoff.

The film's progression is mechanical - it seems as though it were produced in a rusty factory, using scenes from former Oscar-winning films as ingredients. Barely anything can be hailed as original from the representations of thought to the typical score that reminded me of The Sims computer game.

The good? Dustin Hoffman. His performances are always deep and incredibly impressive, and here he is no different. His character is unique to his filmography, and proves even further that Hoffman is one of the greatest actors Hollywood has seen. The rest of the cast falters, however, as the two leads show us nothing of extensive merit, which is surprising for each of them, and the supporting roles such as the three boys are inhabited by incompetent, unmotivated excuses for child actors. In an era where children are constantly blowing audiences away with stellar, intuitive performances, these three boys seem to be reciting lines from their living room for their parents to clap for. Freddie Highmore is particularly laughable as he proceeds to destroy a small stage in what we are supposed to believe is a fervor, but appears more as puberty gone wrong.

In all honesty, the part of the film that elicited the best reaction from me was the end credits, because then I knew I would no longer be subject to the dull monotany. I did not know much about J.M. Barrie, and I still don't, but I can only assume he deserves better. For a film about the power of imagination, Finding Neverland is gravely unimaginative.


REVIEW: Open Range (Kevin Costner, 2003)

Two men with histories kept secret even from each other have been living by their own rules for ten years, away from developed society. Through a growing conflict spawned by a minor event, however, they will stand against a corrupt law enforcer to uphold justice in a small country town. Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner, who also directs, star in this unique take on the Western film.

This reserved yarn was a long anticipated treat. It starts slow with patient character introductions and beautifully captured pastoral landscapes, soon picking up into a quiet yet captivating battle for what is right.

The involvement of Kevin Costner in any film, particularly one he helms, is often a reason for hesitation going in. His good performances (Thirteen Days, 3000 Miles to Graceland) are few in number, while his lesser ones are abundant and often unbearable. He succeeds here, not being a distraction in any way, while also skillfully directing the piece.

Despite Costner's achievement, the true commander of the range is Duvall. He is consistently impressive and makes for a highly memorable, mature hero. The remainder of the cast holds up to standard featuring excellent shows from Annette Benning, Michael Gambon and the late, great Michael Jeter.

Reflecting the film's paced liftoff, it takes some time to appreciate the lead characters. For quite a while they spout cowboy colloquialisms and stubbornly involve themselves where there seems to be no reason to do so. Only when we come to learn more of their natures and intentions do we really come to follow them gladly along their paths.

If you are in the mood for a calm and original cowboy film, Open Range, with a considerable running time of 140 minutes, is perfect for you. It's not a must-see but a most certainly worthy selection that I, for one, greatly enjoyed.


REVIEW: Running Scared (Wayne Kramer, 2006)

Joey Gazelle works for the mafia, but you won't see him working any big shifts. His job is to dispose of "hot pieces" - guns used to commit a crime. An unwanted night of gun fights and chases is ahead when one piece is stolen by the kid next door, played by the always blander-than-all-get-out Cameron Bright. Wayne Kramer writes and directs.

If there's one thing I learned about Kramer from watching his most acclaimed film, The Cooler, it's that he knows how to develop evocative characters. Shelly Kaplow, played by Alec Baldwin in The Cooler, tops my list of most loathed film villians due to not only Baldwin's excellent performance but also Kramer's articulate development. In Running Scared that same development exists, creating a hero out of a pretty unlikeable guy and a bad guy we love to hate out of what could have easily been a mafia stereotype.

Paul Walker. The filmmakers were well aware that he is not the most reputable guy to lead a film, especially a gritty, street action film, but saw huge potential in meeting him to play this role to perfection. Just like the film, he takes no prisoners and is unrestrained in his authentic portrayal of Joey. He was definitely a surprise, coming off projects like The Fast and the Furious and Into the Blue and delivering a true performance here.

Having decent ingredients does not a great work make, however.
Unfortunately for Kramer, who is not trying to be deep here, the boundaries pushed by Running Scared do not include the boundary between a boring film and an exciting one. While the film has some enticing viscerals scattered throughout, none of them piece together to form a recommendable moviegoing experience. In the vein of Tony Scott, the jerky camera and unwarranted editing still don't amount to much. Man on Fire did it well once, now let's leave it be.

This appears, some critics have said, as a step backward for the director. I think his heart was in the right place - he wanted to make a fun movie for a change of pace. The fruit of his labor may be stale, but it does not dissuade me from anticipating his next outing.

REVIEW: THX 1138 (George Lucas, 1971)

Perfect happiness and efficiency - These are the aspects of life that matter in the drug-controlled future, watched over by a disingenuous government. In this world, the downfalls of man such as rage and sloth have been seemingly abolished, but gone with them is also love. Characters THX and LUH must find a way to escape their environment where these newly discovered emotions are forbidden. Robert Duvall plays the reluctant title role in George Lucas' ambitious directorial debut.

Fresh out of the 60's, the era of French filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, come the beginnings of a famed American director. Lucas shows daring in his first feature-length film, doing away with any hint of exposition and throwing us head-first into a place we must come to understand on our own. What this place turns out to be is in fact a metaphor for the daily American life, with its obvious messages artfully shrouded in layers of complex symbolism.

Watching THX 1138 is an almost familiar experience, seeing as much of its content has been adapted into more recent incarnations such as Minority Report, The Island and even Æon Flux - the imagery and themes in THX seem to have inspired the filmmakers behind those projects and surely many others. Unfortunately, due to its slow pacing and quiet nature, the experience can sometimes be a rather trying one. While there is always a beautiful composition on screen that channels Samuel Beckett, flowing free of conventional format, the purposefully dull presence of the film finds us slipping occasionally from full attention.

Duvall and Maggie McOmie make falling in love look easy with their excellent, reserved performances. With a supporting cast including such talents as Sid Haig and Donald Pleasence, THX 1138's acting never fails.

I cannot comment on the special effects. Lucas has apparently never seen the Dead Head sticker on that Cadillac, because he's always looking back, always looking back. In the director's cut that I watched, the effects are what modern Lucas considered "improved upon" which of course means that they are now distracting CGI.

When contemplating the quality of a film, it is important to understand its intentions. Everything that can be construed through a conventional scope as poor about THX 1138 is in fact premeditated and deliberate. George Lucas has succeeded here in creating a highly unique and entirely artistic cinematic experience that presents a believable, though exaggerated, look into the future of humanity.


REVIEW: Van Helsing (Stephen Sommers, 2004)

There exists a secret order in the Vatican, a crew of monks toiling daily to overcome the threat of macabre evildoers. Their primary hitman is none other than Van Helsing, a man whose memories of his origins have been erased. Helsing is sent to Transylvania to hunt down and kill Count Dracula and possibly learn his history. Hugh Jackman takes the lead with Kate Beckinsale in this gamy romp through Hollywood's creature features, written and directed by professed monster buff, Stephen Sommers.

I knew what I was getting into when I saw Sommers' name at the helm; I came prepared with soda and candy (Sour Patch Watermelons, one of my favorites for movie-watching!) Sommers' past includes The Mummy, which was exciting when I was younger, but his defining work is The Mummy Returns, which showcases just about everything that is bad about modern cinema, bordering on territory that Uwe Boll proudly calls home (House of the Dead, need I say more?)

Helsing traverses new grounds of audience-testing right off the bat (get it, bat?) when we are thrust into a laughable amusement park ride of an action scene between the title character and a poorly computer-animated take on Mr. Hyde, who looks like he could have been concept art for Shrek. The subsequent sequences follow suit, though not quite as offensively, providing us with awfully rendered creatures from irritating shrieks on wings calling themselves the brides of Dracula to hairy, buck-toothed werewolves on steroids. These reimaginings of classic movie monsters would be more accurately described as bastardizations. In fact, the only character retaining a worthy portion of its roots is Frankenstein's Monster, who displays qualities similar to even those of his literary origins.

Sommers' script presents a new level of simplicity so bewildering that you would think Captain Obvious himself, Legolas from the Lord of the Rings series, had penned it. Even when an entire wall goes through a computer-generated transmogrification and begins to reflect the characters in its new glass, Sommers still feels the need to have someone say, "A Mirror!" just incase anyone in the audience didn't catch on. The script's poor nature doesn't stop there, sadly, the exposition (cleverly avoided by more talented writers) is some of the most ill-fitted I have ever laid ears on.

There are miniscule glimmers of repute here and there, particularly some surprisingly good compositions and much-needed humor, but they miss their marks, having been aimed through the murky gauntlet that is Helsing. Not even the lead actors appear to have a grip on their material, if you can call it material, for the true heroism of Jackman and Beckinsale exists in our minds as opposed to actually being present on the screen.

If you simply must rent Van Helsing, do so without expectation of a great action movie, bring lots of popcorn and sugar and you may be happy. It also doesn't hurt to have a huge crush on either of the two lead talents.


REVIEW: 2010: The Year We Make Contact (Peter Hyams, 1984)

Nine years after the crew aboard the Discovery went missing near Jupiter following the appearance of a second Monolith, humans are venturing forth into our solar system once again to decipher the events. Russia is more than a year ahead of the United States in preparations, however, and the primary issue for many people is the pride of getting there first. While still harboring ill will that can potentially jeopardize the expedition, the two countries unite in their efforts (shades of Dr. Strangelove?). Peter Hyams directs this foretelling sequel to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey based on the novel by Arthur C. Clarke.

It is no secret that I very strongly consider 2001 to be the greatest film ever made. As described in the documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke conceived the idea and plot structure before parting ways to create separate works - the film and the book, respectively. The symbolic finale to the film ended up baffling many people, including Clarke himself, who admittedly did not immediately comprehend Kubrick's accomplishment. Clarke must have eventually embraced the finale, however, as his literary follow-up, 2010, suggests what could happen after such events. Rather than leaving the ambiguous prophecy for the prosperity of mankind be, he creates a story that explains the occurrences that brought the prophecy forth.

For the first half of the film, the only elements reminiscent of the original piece are certain sound effects, aspects of the score, and the occasionally reserved, wide-angle photography. Most everything else evades the perpetual omnipotence of the first Odyssey and resorts to temporary effectiveness. When we get to Jupiter, however, business really picks up. From literally stunning, new visuals to some great cues from 2001, it becomes a highly captivating film that pays off well.

In and of itself, 2010 is by no means a bad film - it's actually very good. Following the greatest film ever made is not an easy task, and Kubrick's shadow creates most of the reason 2010 catches flack. One might guess that Hyams knew there was no way possible to follow Kubrick and it is with this confidence that he goes forward to create a very satisfying experience. In fact, I think James Cameron took more than a few cues from this film when he made The Abyss. Fear not, this isn't another Son of Kong (although that one is admittedly very fun).


REVIEW: Hellboy (Guillermo Del Toro, 2004)

When Hitler becomes keen on the supernatural, he forms a new branch in his regime to open up a portal in space to summon a hibernating evil into the world. Something does slip through, but is intercepted by Hitler's opposition. It is an odd, red, demon-like creature... Hellboy. At least I think that's how it goes. Guillermo Del Toro directs a recurring actor in his films, Ron Perlman, in the title role of this comic book adaptation.

From opening to closing, I just could not get into Hellboy. What was I hoping for? I'm not sure... the only other Del Toro film I've seen is Blade II, which I love for what Del Toro did with it, but his efforts here fall dead quickly. It took me three sittings to get through the film in its entirety.

Nearly every performance is wooden, especially from Perlman. I can see where some of this was intended, but it goes too far and makes for a more boring experience a la Pirates of the Carribean, although at least Pirates' humor worked on most levels. The inclusion of Jeffrey Tambor, playing a staunch politician, distracts us from the potentially (the word 'potentially' is key) interesting things going on otherwise. In fact, the only performance I cared for came as a nice surprise. Selma Blair plays Hellboy's weak spot, a sweet girl important enough to him that he'll sneak out to see her, even if it means getting caught on camera, and she delivers a believable performance that makes for a nice beacon of goodness amongst the bland juggernauts.

I know that comic books can have far-fetched storylines, especially when it comes to the subject of outer space, but the plot that Hellboy follows is utterly ridiculous. I would imagine that only fans of the source material would find enjoyment in seeing their formerly still-life hero come to life on screen. Only people who are familiar with the characters could have found the primary villian ominous - to me he looked like a well-dressed bum. Furthermore, on top of entertaining a silly story, the film goes anticlimactically over the top with special effects from the creation of a leaden behemoth monster to the random burning of the moon.

Hellboy is a well-intentioned and relatively unique take on the superhero flick, but after the first Blade sequel, I expected more from Del Toro, especially considering he is ready to drop his name from the Halo video game adaptation (which would assuredly be exciting under his direction) in order to more quickly conjure Hellboy 2... Guillermo my man, let it wait! All things considered, however, I still have relatively high hopes for what Pan's Labyrinth could be.