Archive for June, 2004

Movie Review: The Terminal

Posted by Arlo on Jun 27, 2004 under Movie Reviews

The Terminal Movie PosterWhen I hear that Stephen Spielberg is directing a new movie, for some reason I automatically think it’ll fall into one of two categories: Action flicks (Indiana Jones, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, Jaws, A.I.) or Fishing-for-Academy-Awards dramas (Schindler’s List, Empire of the Sun, Amistad). After seeing the Terminal, I’m reminded that he’s more frequently dipping into another category that’s difficult to ascribe a name. Let’s call it the Throwaway Story.

Calling The Terminal a throwaway story isn’t a bad review, it’s just my way of saying that the movie is simply about a bunch of stuff that happens. Apparently it’s loosely based on real life events just like Spielberg Throwaway Story: Catch Me If You Can. Tom Hanks, who was an FBI agent in the latter, now plays a very different character in Viktor Navorski, a citizen of the make-believe country of Krakozia. When his plane lands at JFK in New York, he discovers that his country has erupted in civil war, that the United States will not issue him a visa nor return him to his country, and that until his government is legitimately recognized, he will be unable to leave the “international transit lounge.”

It’s a testament to Steven Spielberg’s abilities as a director that he was able to perfectly pace a two-hour movie on such a thin premise. Although most of the group I saw the movie with complained about its length, I thought that he spent just enough time what he needed to: Viktor conquering the language barrier, Viktor figuring out the airport’s dynamics, Viktor meeting and making friends, falling in love, and finding a job.

For a Spielberg movie, though, I came away with a surprising number of nit-picks. I thought that the portrayal of Viktor’s comprehension level was a bit too high (admittedly, perhaps this bothers me only because I’ve taken the time to learn another language). Also, the head INS agent came across as a bit too harsh in his extreme dislike for Viktor, and yet he wouldn’t take advantage of certain opportunities to get rid of him.

On the plus side, I was pleasantly surprised to guess wrong on the reason for Viktor’s visit to the States and I commend Spielberg for shying away from a typical Hollywood ending with at least a couple of his relationships with his friends.

The Terminal is a nice, neat little movie. It’s funny in all the right places, makes you want to cry here and there, and even has a worthy villian to hate. Thankfully, it doesn’t make a Big Statement on life, culture, politics, or anything else, and I think its lack of a Message is what makes it charming. In the years to come, I’ll bet that The Terminal will be one of those movies that we’ll see over and over again on cable TV.

Trivial Thought: Has anyone else noticed Spielberg’s recent propensity for the extreme backlighting of characters? I wonder if it’s intentional. And that reminds me: What was up with that fountain?
What did I find worthwhile about the movie? It’s a study in cinematic pacing – not to mention set design and extras coordination on a massive scale!
Would I recommend the movie? Yes.
Will I buy it on DVD? Doubtful. It was a good movie, but probably won’t stand up to multiple viewings.

Overall Summer Movie Ranking
Shrek 2
The Day After Tomorrow
The Terminal
The Chronicles of Riddick
Van Helsing
The Stepford Wives

Movie Review: The Stepford Wives

Posted by Arlo on Jun 25, 2004 under Movie Reviews

The Stepford Wives Movie PosterI have to be careful in writing about The Stepford Wives, because if you go in knowing what it’s about, it can be a very predictable movie. This isn’t normally a movie I’d see, especially in a movie theater, but I had a few reasons:

I really like the new theater on the Outer Banks.
The movie was listed in the paper as a Sci-fi/Drama/Comedy.
Mathew Broderick is pretty cool and
Nicole Kidman is pretty hot.

Dang. It’s hard to write about this movie without spoiling anything. Let’s just say that the introduction to Nicole Kidman’s character was too lengthy, characters were completely dropped (the kids), the writers didn’t even make an effort to make the science believable, and the ending felt tacked on. I think I read somewhere that this was a remake of an older movie. Perhaps they were constrained by that.

The best I can say about The Stepford Wives is that it was a “cute” movie.

Trivial Thought: The twist at the end must have been an attempt to alleviate the predictablity of the movie.
What did I find worthwhile about the movie? Christopher Walken is always fun to watch and Mathew Broderick is still pretty cool.
Would I recommend the movie? No.
Will I buy it on DVD? No.

Overall Summer Movie Ranking
Shrek 2
The Day After Tomorrow
The Chronicles of Riddick
Van Helsing
The Stepford Wives *

(* Ranking these movies is harder than I thought! I’m going with a “What would I rather see again?” approach. For instance, I’d rather see Van Helsing again than The Stepford Wives, even though The Stepford Wives is a better movie. Same goes for The Chronicles of Riddick and Troy. Obviously this will be an extremely subjective ranking!)

Movie Review: The Chronicles of Riddick

Posted by Arlo on Jun 24, 2004 under Movie Reviews

The Chronicles of Riddick Movie PosterOkay, let’s get one thing out of the way: I really liked Pitch Black. It was the sort of B-grade, sci-fi sleeper hit that even the critics seemed to like because, I like to think, it took itself seriously. Decent creature effects, a couple of good scare moments, and a twist ending was all it took to launch Vin Diesel’s career.

Watching Riddick in the sequel, though, makes you wonder how Vin made it this far. When an action hero character starts spouting of witty one-liners, I begin to wonder who should be blamed. Was it the script? Does the actor’s ego play a part? Does the director or studio think that a movie won’t last in the public’s consciousness without a sound bite that can be repeated endlessly on a middle school playground? I don’t get it. Maybe the answer is in XXX – I missed that movie.

The Chronicles of Riddick borrows only a bit from the original Pitch Black. Three characters make a comeback and, I think, a certain prison that was mentioned in the first movie is now the setting for a full act in Riddick. The rest of the movie is an attempt to create a literal universe of setting with only a smattering of backstory dialog combined with a plethora of special effects. In my opinion, The Chronicles of Riddick could only have been a success if it had been broken up into more movies.

Whenever I see a mess like this, I inevitably think back (fondly) to The Fifth Element. The biggest accomplishment of that movie was its ability, it just over two hours, to create a robust universe that seemed fully fleshed out and internally consistent. I wish that Riddick had spent more time working on that and less time working on fight scenes. I didn’t care about the characters – I wanted to know what the hell the “Underverse” was all about! What were those cool panther beasts and how did Riddick get their eyes? How does black, smoky, heat ripples propel a ship and what were the motivations of the mutinous “Necromongers?”

I’m sorry. I really wanted to like The Chronicles of Riddick – I do so enjoy my sci-fi. But when the most interesting characters were either downplayed or killed off and so much of the crucial backstory was simply glossed over, there doesn’t leave a lot left to savor. I do hope for another movie in the series, if only to flesh out the universe more. The ending they wrote obviously had a sequel in mind, but unfortunately I can’t imagine that it’ll ever be made. Vin Diesel will probably ask for more money than his rapidly sinking career will command and unless The Chronicles of Riddick does much better at the box office than I think it will, it will have a hard time recovering the money spent on his salary and the (admittedly good) special effects.

You know what would be cool, though? Continuing the story with Return-of-the-King Guy and his power-hungry girlfriend.

Trivial Thought: I’m sorry, 700 degrees is just not that hot.
What did I find worthwhile about the movie? The special effects, again. (Must be summer.) I also liked what little of the backstory I could gleam. Seems like it could be pretty interesting.
Would I recommend the movie? Only if you’re a diehard science fiction fan.
Will I buy it on DVD? Tough one. If so, only because I already own Pitch Black.

Overall Summer Movie Ranking
Shrek 2
The Day After Tomorrow
The Chronicles of Riddick
Van Helsing

Movie Review: Shrek 2

Posted by Arlo on Jun 23, 2004 under Movie Reviews

Shrek 2 Movie PosterI was a big fan of the original Shrek. Ever since I shelled out $800 for a copy of LightWave 3D v.4.0, I have avidly awaited the arrival of new, computer-animated movies. The Disney/Pixar ones are good (A Bug’s Life, Toy Story, Finding Nemo), but often cater just a little too much to the kids for my taste. Dreamworks/PDI (Antz, Shrek) haven’t shied away from a PG-13 rating and I commend them for that. There’s a big difference between sprinkling in a couple jokes to placate the adults who are stuck in the theater with their kids versus writing a movie for adults. My views will likely change if and when I ever have children, but for now I’ll take the adult humor every time.

Shrek came out around the same time as Pixar’s Monster’s Inc., and because they were both computer-generated movies, they invited the typical visual comparisons. Deciding which you like better isn’t easy. Take A Bug’s Life vs. Antz, for instance. You have to take into account that the two studios made stylistic decisions about their movies (i.e., Disney’s pastels vs. PDI’s realism.) Pixar is the easy choice, but I always thought that the original Shrek raised the bar not only in their environmental renderings, but also in character animation. Shrek could have had no plot at all and I would still have enjoyed watching the characters interact in their make-believe world.

Creating a sequel to a movie like that must be difficult. Because your target audience is already familiar with the world, you’re not much able to tamper with the look. Instead of wow’ing everyone with fabulous things they’ve never seen before, you’re instead forced to try to wow them with everything they’re already familiar with. In this Hollywood day and age, it’s almost too much to ask of studios to continue with traditional storytelling devices, like say, character development. But in Shrek 2, that’s not only what they did, but also what made the movie so great. Rare for a sequel, main characters in Shrek 2 undergo significant changes even while new characters are introduced.

Speaking of newly introduced characters, I was thoroughly expecting to hate Antonio Banderas’ Puss In Boots. Perhaps it was because the previews didn’t mesh very well with what I’d heard the critics saying about the character, I don’t know, but I found myself literally laughing myself to tears in the scene where he meets Shrek. In fact, one of the reasons I feel confident that everyone will like Shrek 2 is the way in which it made me laugh. No small feat, considering the mood I was in after putting my wife on a plane out of the country earlier that same day.

Shrek 2 is great, start to finish. I wonder if it’ll even be possible for another summer movie (Spiderman 2? The Village?) to beat it in my insignificant rankings. Oh, and before I forget, make sure you stay through the credits if you want to catch a tiny Donkey epilogue.

Trivial thought: Interesting how some of the best jokes were just background (Stonehenge? Justin? Starbucks? Hilarious!)
What did I find worthwhile about the movie? The animation, the environment, the new renderings. The climatic fight scene (reminded me fondly of the adrenalized escape from the dragon in the first Shrek!) And, of course, Puss In Boots was so cool that I want to create a fan site for him.
Would I recommend the movie? To strangers on the street!
Will I buy it on DVD? The day it comes out!

Overall Summer Movie Ranking
Shrek 2
The Day After Tomorrow
Van Helsing

Movie Review: The Day After Tomorrow

Posted by Arlo on Jun 22, 2004 under Movie Reviews

The Day After Tomorrow Movie PosterI’ve always had a special place in my heart for disaster movies. I don’t quite know why, but I think it has something to do with exploring the idea of “what would one do in a bad situation?” What I don’t like about disaster movies is that they’ve grown so terribly formulaic. Step 1. Establish a wide range of characters. Step 2. Introduce catastrophe. Step 3. Bring together those characters still alive. Step 4. Characters overcome disaster. I often wonder if there might not be a better formula.

The premise of the Day After Tomorrow has to do with the effects of global warming. For the purposes of a two-hour movie time limit, the consequences of our collective industrial actions were unrealistically compressed into a handful of days, rather than decades. This is, of course, assuming that you accept the premise that polar ice melts will cause super-duper-storms in the first place.

Whatever. It was enough to set the stage for disastrous special effects and a father-son adversity/reunion story. “Disastrous” in the sense of the effects showing disasters, naturally. “Naturally” as in natural disasters. Heh.

That’s where the movie shines. Don’t get me wrong, some of the characters are okay. Some aren’t (for instance, I never felt anything for Little Leukemia Boy, and I wanted more closure on the scientists in Scotland). But make no mistake, the disasters are the draw in this movie and most of them are pretty good. If you’ve seen the previews, you already know about the geographically strange tornadoes, the big flood, and the super-cold temperatures. I did, going in, but for some reason I thought there would be more variety to the natural disasters. Engaging my powers of 20/20 hindsight, I don’t know why that is, though. It’s not like global warming is going to result in volcanic eruptions or big earthquakes.

The best thing I can say about The Day After Tomorrow is that I was able to suspend my disbelief and lose myself in the story. I truly wanted to know what would happen next and – unlike Troy, for instance – I was never thinking about when the movie was going to end. And that’s probably a good thing, considering the moral with which they beat you over the head just before the closing credits. Up until the last couple minutes, it was a diverting summer film… and then, WHAP-WHAP! Watch out all you Republicans – Roland Emmerich has a message. Sigh.

Trivial Thought: Did you notice that all the wolves were completely computer generated? Interesting, that.
What did I find worthwhile about the movie? The special effects, of course. That and poking holes in the movie’s “science.”
Would I recommend the movie? If you like disaster movies, yes. If you’re a Republican, no.
Will I buy it on DVD? Probably, although it may come down to the special features list.

Overall Summer Movie Ranking
The Day After Tomorrow
Van Helsing

Movie Review: Troy

Posted by Arlo on Jun 21, 2004 under Movie Reviews

Troy Movie PosterTroy. Hmmm. Troy was a long movie. Normally, I enjoy movies that teeter on the edge of 3 hours if only because they make me feel as though I’ve got my money’s worth. Perhaps my mistake with Troy was in going to see a show that started at 10pm. Long before the end of the movie, I was already thinking about my nice, comfortable bed at home.

I’ve never read Homer’s Illiad, nor have I studied ancient Greek history enough to know the true story of Troy. Come to think of it, I’ve never even seen a movie about it, either. I guess everything I know about Helen, Troy, and the Trojan Horse, I’ve learned through pop cultural references. Add to that, now, Brad Pitt’s sculpted interpretation of Achilles, I suppose that I’m now as well-informed as 90% of America.

Troy wasn’t a bad movie – in fact, it was actually pretty good. I thought it odd to focus the story of the fall of a city on a single character’s vanity, but I suppose this story has already been told so many ways, the scriptwriter was probably just looking for a new angle. I can respect that, but if you’re going to focus a movie on a single character, I think there’s a strong argument to make the audience sympathetic to that personality. Brad Pitt got top billing, but it was Eric Bana and the others behind the Wall of Troy that I found myself rooting for.

The effects in Troy were impressive. Massive armies clashing, gruesome deathblows, sweeping camera angles of an imagined city… Unlike Van Helsing, I never caught myself thinking, “Oh, that looks SO fake!” But I heard from a friend that the city of Troy had a population of only 3000, the walls were only 6 feet high, and the war lasted ten years. I suppose that if you simply much have an army siege a castle, post Lord of the Rings, you damn well better have an epic amount of carnage. History be damned, Homeric movies sell tickets.

Trivial thought: Notice that there is only one female speaking role for the Greeks vs. countless supporting females for the Trojans – no wonder they don’t come off as sympathetic!
What did I find worthwhile about the movie? The (mostly concealed) special effects – the best SFX are the ones you didn’t realize were SFX! Most of the non-Greek characters. Plus the eventual sacking of Troy was surprisingly affecting.
Would I recommend the movie? Yeah, I ‘spose.
Will I buy it on DVD? No.

Overall Summer Movie Ranking
Van Helsing

Movie Review: Van Helsing

Posted by Arlo on Jun 20, 2004 under Movie Reviews

Van Helsing Movie PosterWhat is there to say about Van Helsing? I can tell you this: Right from the previews, I expected that it wasn’t going to be a good movie. I can’t pinpoint exactly how I knew that, but it sure turned out to be true.

Maybe it was because I knew that it was written and directed by Steven Sommers. He was the guy responsible for The Mummy, the Mummy Returns, and The Scorpion King. I’ll admit that The Mummy was an okay movie… once I realized that it was going for camp, I actually started to enjoy it. I liked The Mummy Returns… not so much. Would you blame me if I told you that I skipped The Scorpion King altogether?

Van Helsing was destined to be the epitome of a special effects laden summer action movie. I went in with low expectations and it was only because of that that I wasn’t completely disgusted. The best thing I can say about the movie is that often the special effects were amazing (if not totally convincing). We’ve come a long way in the 25 years or so since Star Wars. I’m anxious to see where Hollywood will be 25 years from now!

The worse thing I can say about Van Helsing is… hold on. Let me think. There’s a lot to choose from. Okay, I guess it’s that the plot was obviously tacked on as an afterthought. I’ll grudgingly admit that there was a plot there – one that definitely wasn’t difficult to follow. It’s just that the characters were barely given enough time to say a few story-propelling lines before being hurled back into yet another fight with a computer-generated beastie. (For what it’s worth, I might have chosen another aspect of the film as being the worst part of Van Helsing, but for an interview I read with the writer/director. He was so proud of the story he had crafted, cunningly able to bring together three Hollywood monsters of yore! Let me tell you, Mr. Sommers desperately needs to learn the difference between “an idea” and “a story.”)

Trivial Thought: Werewolves are apparently unaffected by the laws of gravity.
What did I find worthwhile about the movie? The special effects. Plus Kate Beckinsale and the lead vampiress were very hot!
Would I recommend the movie? Probably not.
Will I buy it on DVD? No.