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X-Men: The Last Stand

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I should preface this review with the fact that several of my friends have come forward and admitted to liking this movie. I admit being utterly mystified by this news, and have steeled myself for the consequences of my really being wildly unimpressed by the movie. I read some X-Men comics in my high school years, and I have a higher than average comic-geek compatibility, especially for a female. I know who most of the characters are and I have always had a healthy respect for the series, oft-times based on the reverence with which it is discussed among my friends. At worst, with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, I expected it to be disappointing. I was braced from preview one of the X-Men for it to utterly blow, Schumacher-Batman style, and I will admit that it was not remotely as crappy as the last two Batman movies. However, it learned very little from that franchise.

The sets were cool, the effects were cool, but these days, with technology being what it is, we really shouldn’t be as wowed by stunning effects, as willing to forgive slapdash storytelling in the face of amazing visuals. The X-Men has some good visuals, but certainly not of titanic proportions enough to make you ignore the goofy one liners, stuttering storyline, thinly drawn characters (except Rogue) and the resulting inexplicable mess. Anna Paquin (you know, the Oscar-winning teen from The Piano) is the erstwhile lead of the movie, and if it had been part one of many films, focusing on her and discovering her X-Personitude and some dramatic “There are four lights!” type scenes with Patrick Stewart, well, I would have been happy. Instead, we have this fairly transparent humans vs. mutants tolerance theme, coupled with an intra-mutant community fracas, inexplicable and uninteresting. If the humans are ganging up on the mutants, why would the mutants then war amongst themselves? Most otherwise decent movies with a glaring plot flaw are totally uninteresting to me. For example – what should have been a cool, stylish thriller, Shallow Grave – just call the freaking cops, you didn’t do anything! An entire movie about something stupid.

Anyway, I am not saying X-Men is devoid of watchability – but when you start stringing together adequate set pieces with flimsy ridiculous reasoning, I can’t care. My friends know I can suspend my disbelief with the best of anyone – so you out there who don’t know me, please don’t think I was turned off by the mutant angle. Indeed, I wanted more mutants, more “how did we get here,” less inane banter and less motiveless silliness. The opening scene was very cool and it set me up to think the rest of the movie would be as well. Rogue interested me (despite rolling my eyes at a normal American teen calling herself Rogue *before* she is inducted into a group. Comics/graphic novels toe a very delicate line – you either have to downplay the silly stuff (I mean, can’t Cyclops wear the cool, regular-guy shades when he’s in public instead of that silly Geordi LaForge getup?) or totally work it – a la Jack Nicholson’s Joker.

You cast two fantastic actors (three if you count Paquin), McKellan and Stewart, and you keep them apart the majority of the movie? You slap a Flash Gordon rugby helmet on a Shakespearean master and expect him to out-emote it? No no no. I did enjoy very much the comic bookish (I regret not having my random X-Men comics handy to quote an artist) production design – swooping lines and gleaming metal, forbidding hallways and groovy overdone lighting. Storm looks ready to hit the red line sale at Express and the ink is still wet on Cyclops’ cK One contract. Wolverine looked like an Australian bouncer, which is good, but he was kinda more like a Labrador than a carrion-rending marmot. I was disappointed, but nearly not as much as I thought I would be. It’s obvious there will be a sequel, and maybe then they will make the movie for the people who don’t know the X-Men well and who need a little depth in their film characters.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 7/14/00
Time in minutes 104
Director Bryan Singer
Studio 20th Century Fox

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Scary Movie 3

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I love parodies. That said, I appreciate good parodies, and wish the best for the rest. The Wayans family has often been hit-or-miss with parodies in their TV shows, and sometimes their best jokes are drowned out by sillier ones. Did anyone notice the name of the high school in which this film is set? Probably not – but it’s pretty amusing – some of the cars in the parking lot are funny too – largely because attention is not drawn to them. This I will call the ZAZ style of parody – Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker – along the lines of classics like Airplane and Naked Gun. Even the audience of hooting fans fell silent at the “Whazzzup” jokes – a “Where’s the Beef?” gag couldn’t have fallen flatter. This I will call the Linear style of parody. “If we refer to something the audience is familiar with, regardless of whether it’s a new twist on it or whether it fits the story, we will get a laugh.” Oh, no. Luckily for Scary Movie, I just saw the first half of Spaceballs the other day, and so I was in a need-ZAZ kind of mood. I am embarrassed to admit that I watched it on purpose – I had remembered it as watchable. I was wrong.

Scary Movie is funny in parts, it’s silly, it does require a direct familiarity with Scream 1, mostly, with I Know What You Did Last Summer and a little of Scream 2 and a smattering of pop culture knowledge. If you haven’t seen these movies, this movie is nonsensical and terrible. If you don’t know anything about Carmen Electra’s personal life, quite a few jokes will go over your head. Finally, if anything in There’s Something About Mary that made you feel uncomfortable, and you should know what I mean, then you will not appreciate the visual gags that litter Scary Movie. I enjoyed them, from a ballsy standpoint, but they were more gutsy than funny. This is a shame, actually, because it was treading on ZAZ-style shock value. “You like gladiator movies?” The basic joke arc, however, is pure Linear, and so the easily amused will be rolling in the aisles. This sounds snobby, and I mean it to. I loved the South Park movie, I love brilliant parody like Young Frankenstein, but I have no patience for humor tilted toward the linear-minded.

I am not explaining this well. I laughed, but I laughed alone at the subtler gags (even being so desperate to share my glee that I pointed out a Virgin Certificate to a stranger sitting beside me), and I sat silent through the fat-girl-can’t-squeeze-through-a-small-opening gags…as did much of the audience with me. I was surprised at some of the things I actually saw on screen – stuff my friends and I joke about all the time, but not even the Farrelly Brothers have attempted. Think about that, Gentle Readers. If you have not seen the source material, even less will be funny. Those of you who thought it was funny to have Fonzie as the principal in Scream will love the principal of this high school. No one in my audience even recognized Principal Squigman!

Dimension Films graciously let director Keenan Ivory Wayans drag his hapless cast all over the exact Scream locations – but since Scream 3 already kind of covered the “hey, we’re on the Scream set” bit, some of the humor fell flat. Wayans knows the sources of his gags – he takes full advantage of all the conventions such as the abrupt and obvious lighting changes that happen right before a killing, the ridiculous fearlessness of people when confronted by the killer, etc. – but he’s parodying the master. It may have been an accident, but I’m afraid it was just oversight. Many of the set pieces of this movie would have been brilliant in a sketch comedy format, but the overall blend of movies that are already parodying the genre into a parody of the genre made the whole soup a wee bit unsatisfying. However, I am certain someone can make this movie into a credible drinking game. It’s fun, go with a bunch of friends, don’t hope for a new watershed in satire, and you’ll have an OK time.

MPAA Rating R -crude sexual humor, language,drugs &violence.
Release date 7/7/00
Time in minutes 88
Director Keenan Ivory Wayans
Studio Dimension Films

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Chicken Run

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If you have never seen work from Aardman Studios, you have to see Chicken Run, without hesitation. You have seen some if you saw the talking Chevron cars or pay attention to the animated short subject winners of the Oscars. Aardman is excessively famous for producing the three shockingly sophisticated Wallace and Gromit shorts (about 18-27 minutes long). No, it’s not a cartoon – it’s claymation. Plasticenemation, to be precise, and there is a difference. I could write a book about the intricate beauty, the realism, the depth, the craft of this kind of work, but you should just rush right out and see it. Chicken Run is Aardman’s first full-length feature, first wide distribution of big-screen plasticenemation, at least in America. I should also mention it’s billed as a comedy and a drama – yet it’s rated G. Catch an evening show so the gasping kiddies won’t drown out the rapid-fire dialogue.

Nick Park, the Oscar-weighted genius behind the Wallace and Gromit films (they only get better the more you watch them, and they are available for rental!), directs Chicken Run along with Peter Lords, who collaborated with him on the LipSynch series, the most famous of which is Creature Comforts. That is also available on video, by the way. Nick loves detail – and in claymation the crew has HOURS upon hours of intensive labor in which to fill the little clay world with detail and whimsy. I wouldn’t even try to claim I absorbed half of it – after 7 viewings of The Wrong Trousers I still noticed new things. Park is amazing – his sense of space and lighting and color and texture stuff the screen. Hysterically, he has chickens wearing glasses and instead of being accepted like Donald Duck’s pants, his characters are so marvelous that you are forced to laugh at the idea of them wearing glasses. Oh, drat, I am not explaining this well. It’s script, it’s character animation, it’s brilliant voice casting (IMDB is unhelpful here – Starring: Julia Sawalha , Mel Gibson , Miranda Richardson , Tony Haygarth and Phil Daniels is the cast credits), it’s inventiveness taken to new levels. Just go see it! You can catch images from the Reel.com official site, perhaps that will help.

Did I mention it stars the voice of Mel Gibson? But that doesn’t make a difference, really. Mel is a charismatic hero, with a sense of humor, and that’s all you need to make Rocky Rhode Island Red a winning character (Mel is great, totally redeeming himself for Pocahontas). The voices that really fit the story are the English actors. Something about Aardman just feels weird pronounced in American – the Chevron cars were creepy and unpleasant, while Wallace is just as charming as can be. I realize this is turning into a big commercial for Aardman Animation, so I will reiterate that you should check out everything they have done and then run out to see this movie. Or vice versa.

The only reason it gets Matinee with Snacks instead of Full Price Feature is that it is a wee bit slanted toward, well, American children. It’s kind of simple, straightforward, it has a few sad puns and a little bit of mocking the odd one out (never cool). It is glorious to watch. Consider that film runs 24 frames per second, and in order to have really fluid motion, one must move at 16 frames per second. Sixteen frames per second. Some of the motions aren’t nearly so rapid fire as that – but consider also that Chicken Run is 4,980 seconds long (give or take), so picture the 12 hr day in the studio where they get about 10 seconds of action on film. Nick Park likes things to wobble, to settle after movement, to rustle, to look real. So even if we are seeing a close up of Mac (my favorite chicken, the Scot in glasses) speaking, her feathers are wiggling with her breath, something is moving in the background, etc. Never mind a yard full of panicking hens throwing their knitting about in terror! The sheer glee, the novelty of Park and Lords” inventiveness, is what makes this more than just that scary Rudolph claymation from the 1970’s.

It’s labor intensive, claymation is, and in this case, the results are more than worth it. Pay your money and support this kind of fine art.

MPAA Rating G
Release date 6/23/00
Time in minutes 83
Director Nick Park, Peter Lord
Studio Dreamworks

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Love's Labour's Lost (2000)

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It’s no secret. Movie musicals are not the box office explodaganza that studios want them to be. Shakespeare is hit or miss, as far as drawing a crowd. Me, I love them, so keep that in mind. Making a glitzy, old-school 1930’s movie musical out of the Bard’s silliest work, Love’s Labour’s Lost, is exactly the kind of thing that a studio wouldn’t do in a million years…unless MAYBE it was chock full of names and paid for in advance by the production team. Enter Kenneth Branagh, with slimmed down Shakespeare in one hand and the Gershwin song book in the other (and no doubt a fat bag of cash).

Perhaps it went something like this…
BRANAGH: (ending pitch) “…set in 1939, and it’s called Love’s Labour’s Lost.”
PRODUCER: “Hmmm….I see you’ve cut out a lot of those ‘words’ we producers find so troublesome about Shakespeare.”
BRANAGH: “Yes, I kept in just enough to muddle the tongues of my young teen movie idols like Alicia Silverstone and Matthew Lillard.”
PRODUCER: “I like them.”
BRANAGH: “I chose nice, soundtrackable songs to take the place of much of the original dialogue.”
PRODUCER: “Go on…” (puffs cigar)
BRANAGH: “And we are making it a big homage to the wonderful movie musicals of the Golden Age of Hollywood, like those on which your father used to work.”
PRODUCER: (wipes tear from his eye) “But will anyone go see it?”
BRANAGH: “It is an art-house kind of movie, I admit, but think of all the Oscars artsy movies make over box office darlings. Would you rather back Battlefield Earth or Boys Don’t Cry?”
PRODUCER: “I see your point. But there will be singing and dancing? Like in Newsies?”
BRANAGH: “I’m paying for it myself.”
PRODUCER: “GREEN LIGHT THIS GUY!”

The sad but true thing about this movie is that there is a limited number of people it will appeal to, but hopefully all of you/them will go see it. The musical numbers do feel strange coming out of the thicker Shakespearean dialogue – let’s face it, a Gershwin tune is not lyrically all that challenging – and it is surreal to see Scream and Hackers alumni Matthew Lillard hoofing it up like Tommy Tune’s first, gangly job, but it’s also the best homage to the period you could hope for. The songs are used, “old school style” as the inner monologues/action of the story, they are for the most part nicely sung and gracefully danced.

Director (and screenwriter) Branagh wisely keeps the camera wide with long takes, instead of short choppy shots which ruin the idea of a multi-dancer musical number. Unlike the aforementioned Newsies, the dancing is all properly period, and the costume design is straightforward Shakespeare AND Golden Musical – the guy in the red tie gets the girl in the red hat, etc. Branagh has cast himself as the most interesting of the 4 lads. I didn’t check if he just reassigned other guys’ lines to himself, but he’s usually not such a stagehog when he treats the Bard. He also references many movies from the time, notably Casablanca and any Esther Williams musical. The main flaw in his opus is the editing – it feels awkward, choppy, and adds to the sense of weirdness created by lopping out huge chunks of text. I would be willing to bet that the shooting script had more Bard than we saw in the final cut; for this I will blame the studio.

I said earlier that Love’s Labour’s Lost is Shakespeare’s silliest work, yet I can’t really say that with any conviction. It could be that Branagh snipped just a little too much out to make room for his songs, which even to my willing audience ran a tad long. Our brains are cranked up to absorb Elizabethan poetry, then a charming song which does beLabour the point a tad drags down a couple of scenes. Then again, “I get no kick from champagne” was very very funny. One thing I must credit this film with, more even than trying to revitalize (or memorialize) the classic movie musical, is for making the romantic W.W.II experience a little more vital. It occurs during the song “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” and I won’t say much more about it plot-wise, but for all of you who read, disbelieving, the Ann Landers letters telling of two week courtships ending in 54 years of happy marriage, the whole thing makes more sense after this sequence. That part of the film sticks with me; if you can take it all in its implied historical context, you might like it even better.

MPAA Rating PG
Release date 6/23/00
Time in minutes 93
Director Kenneth Branagh
Studio Miramax

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Me, Myself, & Irene

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The Farrelly Brothers and Jim Carrey are together again. You may recognize that combination of names from Dumb and Dumber (a classic in dumbness). The Farrellys also graced us with the wildly popular There’s Something About Mary, which a few jillion of you saw. It’s got Jim Carrey too, returning to his roots after stretching himself beautifully – and being WAY under appreciated. So what, says the intelligent movie-goer. How are you going to sell me on a movie with a cast known for wacky, fluid-centric hijinks and kooky nutty silliness? I am telling you, the Farrellys have got some seriously smart ideas inside their goofy heads. This one is kind of All of Me meets Liar Liar with a pinch of Dumb and Dumber. This is a good thing!

If you watched the credits for There’s Something About Mary, you saw a fun all-cast, all location singalong to The Foundations’ “Build me up Buttercup.” This is even more amazing considering the actual mechanics of filmmaking, having people onset ready to do this, making sure you get a shot from every major location. It becomes evident that Bobby and Peter F. make sure the audience gets a good sense of how much fun their cast and crew had making the movie. As all theatre people know, if the audience can sense that you are having a good time, they will have a good time – even if you suck. The Farrellys tend not to suck. (I had mistakenly attributed the agonizing Kingpin to these guys and that was an error!) Me, Myself, and Irene’s end credits included stills from throughout the film, naming featured (non-speaking and speaking) extras, making the movie feel more like a big family event. Stick through to the end, there is a little stinger.

Yes, there are poop jokes. Yes, there are masturbation jokes (someone in the audience pointed out a watermelon with a hole in it in a scene that otherwise would have gone totally unnoticed). Yes, there are things inserted in butts for comic effect. It all works because they are also sly. Some of the jokes are about things that you actually have to read the paper every day to understand. Some involve Mensa, and not in a mocking way. Racial stereotypes are busted open, kids are fair game as well as adults, and some of the humor slowly dawns on you later – hey! That was hysterical! Hank Evans for little girls. Good soundtrack, too! An amusing narration, a la those adorable Disney movies of the late 1960’s and 1970’s (you know, “Ol’ Mr. Bear wasn’t about to let that raccoon eat all his dinner”) by Rex Allen Jr. lends a weird, homey touch, and rushes some of the narrative, but it’s unobtrusive.

My companion and I mused over the differences between “dumb” and “stupid.” It is clear, watching the preview for Big Momma’s House, that Momma’s is going to be stupid, lame, insulting, weak, poorly structured, and not even make the most of its weak premise. Dumb movies, like the Ace Ventura series, Dumb and Dumber, or, more classically, movies with hapless heroes from Buster Keaton to Blazing Saddles, are movies that celebrate idiocy, revel in the comic potential of someone who is oblivious, and effect a change in the characters in the end. Dumb can be stupid, don’t you mistake me, but stupid can never be good. Jim Carrey happens to be the reigning King of Dumbness (in a good sense). This has trapped him, made the public unwilling to watch The Cable Guy, much less Man on the Moon, but if you got it, work it. Previous dumb kings are Bill Murray (smart lies beneath all dumbness) and Steve Martin in The Jerk and the Emperor of Dumb, Leslie Nielsen in Airplane. Actors who do dumb well have no shame, they have no compunction against self-mutilation or punishment, and we love them for it. Many people loved Chris Ferrell for this, but I felt that he was under the “milk it to death” influence of Saturday Night Live and never expanded beyond Fat Man Who Screams And Falls Down. We like dumbness because sometimes, we don’t feel smart enough for Dennis Miller or Jon Stewart. We like those guys because they challenge us or amuse us by being so righteously correct; but dumb people can astound us with their idiocy, and we love them for taking the shame so much better than we could.

Carrey’s character has some kids, and they are freakin’ hilarious. That is all I can say without giving away some plot, but every time they were onscreen I and my companion were in tears. Me, Myself, & Irene is not as rip-roaring funny as TSAMary, but it’s a little more sensitive to its subject matter. Maybe. I’d prefer to blame the flat, uninteresting Renee Zellweger – I hate to bag on a fellow UT alumni but dang if she ain’t boring boring. Somehow she and Carrey fell in love for real after this movie. Farrelly alum Cameron Diaz never ever gets enough credit for the movies she is in, and with her absent, the film suffers. Enjoy Me, Myself, and Irene. I did!

MPAA Rating R -sexual content, strong language&some violence
Release date 6/23/00
Time in minutes 110
Director Farrelly Brothers
Studio 20th Century Fox

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Titan A.E.

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Until I was actually sitting in the theatre, watching the opening credits, I did not know this was going to be a Don Bluth (All Dogs Go To Heaven) movie. I sank in my seat, remembering countless animated disappointments of my youth. That said, I can assert with no reservations that Titan A.E. is the best Don Bluth film ever made besides the Secret of N.I.M.H.. But what about as a standalone movie? I did spend a lot of time distracted, trying to identify the many celebrity voices acting out this sci-fi fable of humans struggling to survive as a species in 3038 A.D. (10 years A.E., or After Earth). Once I had worked them out, I was able to relax and enjoy the film a bit more. Titan relies heavily on computer animation for basically everything except the characters, which makes for some really nice looking backgrounds with relatively clumsy hand drawn stuff. Naturally, the seamless CGI is always going to be smoother than hand drawn stuff, but Bluth’s films (for me) have always been cursed with sloppy animation anyway – and it stands out. Mouths open too wide when people talk, fingers skitter along slick computerized backgrounds, etc.

For all the hand drawn weaknesses, the cinematography is kick ass. It’s very kick ass. Exciting camera movement (thanks to the wonders of the computer) in three dimensions and high speed camera chasing through beautifully rendered backgrounds make the movie worth a matinee price as is. The bad guys, the Drej, are all computer-animated and glowy and they have creepy synthesized voices, and they look pretty cool. The story is pleasant, simple, a tad black and white insofar as good and evil are concerned. It’s more of a kids movie than many recent animated movies of its scope, but it’s still watchable by adults. Avid readers of mine know how I feel about the short shrift that animated movies get in the eyes of many adults – if it’s drawn, it must be juvenile – yet they go see Adam Sandler movies in droves. Any Simpsons fan will tell you there is zero direct correlation between animation and juvenilia. However, despite my lengthy diatribes on this subject, Titan AE is not one to which I would send the skeptics in order to convert them. It’s not silly, it’s just OK, with a dash of visual deliciousness, and that’s often all one could want on a hot summer day.

It’s got a pretty pumping soundtrack your older kids will love, a little “tee hee mommy I saw his bare behind!” but nothing sexual, and some groovy action sequences and marketable characters who actually seem to have been created as characters and not pre-packaged goods. Novel enough! Titan AE also has some cool, Myst-era creativity in it, like beautiful hydrogen trees and amazing crystalline ice rings, colliding in a chaos we only get to read about in Carl Sagan books. It’s got a little of the respect your father and what he stood for type message, a little anyone can be a hero attitude, and then some more cool looking energy field stuff.

A pleasant diversion, but nothing to freak out about.

MPAA Rating PG
Release date 6/16/00
Time in minutes 90
Director Don Bluth, Gary Goldman
Studio 20th Century Fox

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Boys and Girls (2000)

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Did you see Down to You? Then you saw a slightly less pleasant version of this film. Written by, and I quote the credits, The Drews, Boys and Girls desperately wanted to be a Pretty in Pink for the Gen Y crowd, and on some levels it is very nice to watch. Freddie Prinze Jr. is engagingly cast against type as a real type-A nerdball, with high moral standards and, somehow, a decent amount of personality. It is extremely helpful that he looks like Freddie Prinze, Jr., because otherwise he would have been the new Anthony Michael Hall. Claire Forlani is not the spitfire that Julia Stiles is, but she does get a slightly better script, so they tie on that count. Down to You and Boys and Girls suffer from the new Generican standard: vignette vignette vignette, all color and character with zero-to-none plot advancement or realistic reason for the vignettes to be occurring. Some very spunky side characters help, including the winsomely pathetic (or is he pathetically winsome?) Jason Biggs and the slightly off-center Amanda Detmer. Blair Witch fans will be relieved to see the ghost of Heather Donahue in her first Real Movie.

Oh yes, we can see the plot points lumbering toward us like Godzilla in Death Valley. Yes, there is spastic super witty banter, quips whipping through the air with the greatest of ease and with minimal impact. However, the movie does actually carry a legitimately good overall message about self esteem and tone and being yourself and not judging other people and knowing what you want and doing the right thing without being aggressively creepy about it. The main characters bond over nothing and have a preternaturally easy friendship which blows up predictably at almost the exact moment in the film when you think it will; and then we’ll see if it works out. There’s even (to keep up the Freddie Prinze movie comparison) a cute little dance number that’s more fun and accessible but not cool for dance’s sake. Girls will swoon over Freddie, their dates will strain to see through that white kerchief top of Claire’s, and everyone will go home afterward and wonder what is wrong with their relationships. Or, hopefully, look at their long time just-friends buddy with whole new appreciation.

It’s refreshing to see a male character take sex seriously without being a total caricature, and it’s nice to see a woman respond to a situation with a guy without screaming “what about prom!” by the lockers. OK, they’re in college, but you see my point? Foolishly, the filmmakers have our protagonists chatting in line at a double feature of Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles, discussing the realism of the films, *while in a moderately unrealistic film themselves.* It does nothing to help the movie. I am being too harsh by far. Jason Biggs is an unrelenting failure when it comes to trying to meet women, but it’s a nice comic relief to the otherwise perfunctory situation waxing and waning between the lead cutie pies. The ending is kind of barifilicious, but it’s the only way this movie could have ended, the way it set itself up. Too many obstacles. It’s worth ducking into a theatrical screening of this just to see the previews tacked on to this film; and the end credits, which are very funny. Dimension was doing really well with storyline with the Scream movies, but seems to have gone the way of the Warner Brothers with this one…can it return?

By the way, The Drews turns out to be Andrew Lowry and Andrew Miller. I hope that helps.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 6/6/00
Time in minutes 94
Director Robert Iscove
Studio Dimension Films

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Shanghai Noon

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Jackie Chan. These are the operative words. If you like Jackie Chan, you already have a differing level of standards for evaluating his films. Is he better as a solo act, as in First Strike? Or is it more fun to see him distilled with an American partner, as in Rush Hour? With the latter film, Jackie’s trademark fight scene ballets and personal safety-flaunting stunts were fewer, but his comic ability was used more. With First Strike, it’s death-defiance after death-defiance, with an interesting but secondary plot. Shanghai Noon pairs Jackie with the wildly underappreciated Owen Wilson, who is damn funny, in the Wild West. Shanghai Noon has a lot of sly, modern winks, fish-out-of-water gags, and some pretty cool fight scenes. Upon recent reviewing of Rush Hour, I would have to say that Noon is a more successful blend of American cinema and Jackie’s trademark action.

I must interject that the use of bad modern metal to “punch up” scenes that would have been adequately rendered with pure score left a bad taste in my mouth, but I am grateful to acknowledge that at least it was really only one scene that went flat for that usage. Wilson is a funny guy – and his nice-guy bad guy, cocky and sardonic, is a great role for him. I hope now more people know who he is and cast him more often. He’s a better comic foil to Jackie’s brand of smiling, innocent-savant humor than showboating Chris Tucker was. Oh, did I mention there is more Jackie-style fighting than we have seen in a while?

After the visually impressive but otherwise silly debacle of Wild Wild West, it was nice to see that it was the story and not the setting that can’t be swallowed – Shanghai Noon’s Old West is dusty and deadly and filled with peril. Native Americans get some pretty good presence as well – with some great big scenes of riding and fighting and warring. But the real meat of the movie is Wilson and Chan, friends and foes, fighting to rescue Princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu) from the bad, bad man who has her. The chemistry was good enough that you leave thinking, “I’d like to see more of them together,” but the basic truth is that a sequel would be a terrible idea. Enough to let us laugh at the anachronistic jokes and gape at Chan’s trademark death-defying stuntwork.

The sad truth of these new American Jackie Chan movies (the first being Rush Hour, NOT Rumble in the Bronx, which was shot in like, Australia or something) is that American studios recognized the wretched dubbing/acting of his native-made forays, and doubt Americans’ ability to forgive the acting just to see Jackie break his ankle for real – so they beef up the story until there is no time to have a sudden, random fisticuffs with shopping carts and jump ropes and pumpkins and so on. Additionally, the USA has some oppressive views about insurance and liability, and just won’t let Jackie get into positions where he might get hurt – although doesn’t it seem we have a lot of stunt people getting killed recently? “Oh but they’re only stunt people.” American’s want to be wowed, and I believe Jackie Chan fans are more wowed by him scrabbling up a glacier with his bare hands than seeing a lookalike dragged on a wire across an abyss with a cushion below him. Knowing just by looking all the safety that was packed around Jackie takes away the magic that is his skill as a performer. Not that I want Jackie to be hurt! Outtakes where he flies through a hole in a ladder and misses by a bit versus outtakes where he cracks up because he can’t pronounce Rooty Tooty Fresh and Fruity kind of take the edge off his style of entertainment.

Don’t let my regret at the repression of Jackie’s glorious insanity stop you from seeing Shanghai Noon – go and enjoy it and then rent some of his Hong Kong films if you never have and you will see just what I mean.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 5/26/00
Time in minutes 105
Director Tom Dey
Studio Touchstone

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Mission Impossible 2

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I’ll say right off the bat that despite the played-down Apple presence (compared to the first one), despite the utter lack of motivation that everyone in the movie has, and despite the relative boringness of the supposedly exotic Thandie Newton (seven of you may have seen her in Besieged and/or Beloved), Mission Impossible 2 was a fun, popcorny, silly movie full of impossibly hot men. Yes, my friend, this movie was made for the ladies. I wouldn’t have thought John Woo to have the eye, but he does. So we get the guys in the seats to see some cool, slo-mo airwalking kicks from Tom Cruise and Dougray Scott, and girls along with them to remember why we liked Cruise so much in the first place. You may remember Dougray Scott from his swoony role in Ever After. Cruise has been in a couple of regrettable films, including Eyes Wide Shut, Days of Thunder, and Losin’ It. We love Tom so much, we let him get away with that haircut decade after decade. Why? Sometimes he can just smile in such a way that we scream “show me the boxers!” and forgive him for his past transgressions.

I digress. Don’t get me wrong, both the films in this franchise are Mission Implausible, but I think John Woo (Face/Off) can work the fantasy-testosterone action with more skill than Bonfire of the Vanities’ (and MI 1) Brian De Palma. And mano-a-mano is just plain less silly, even when stylized, than leaping from a helicopter onto a train while both are traveling in a tunnel. Man, that was insulting! But MI2 is no Silence of the Lambs, despite Anthony Hopkins, version 2.0 (post-Merchant Ivory, pre-Amistad). MI2 is good clean fun, lots of violence and danger and implied sexual situations, a little sneaky-snoo spy stuff, cool camera work, and Tom giving us that look that says, “you love me, don’t you?” We do love you Tom, like that bad boyfriend we keep getting back together with. You’re no good for us, you disappoint us on the big screen sometimes (not in Magnolia!) but it’s fun to watch you run around!

The sad truth of movies like this is simply that they feel they have to top each other, and we end up being excited to death – over-stimulated with no emotional connection, no reason to care, no tension, and so no charge. I really couldn’t tell half the time why people were doing what they were doing but I could tell good guy from bad guy (the hats helped) and that was enough to know that that guy shooting at Tom is someone I should enjoy getting kicked in the face. A scene I thought was the end of the movie (premature climax) was loud and broken glass and yelling and rolling and shooting and I was just utterly uninvolved. This is a shame, because, technically speaking, it was nicely shot. Woo has a lot of glass flying around in his movies – it’s tense (remember the broken glass on the bathroom floor in Die Hard? True, not his movie, but great glass!) and it catches the light and it’s a great symbol of chaos. No one gets a scratch on them, no one has to walk barefoot through it, nothing. Nothing in MI2 was as tense as the hanging from a wire cat burglar scene in the first film, either. Yet again, I was far less confused and insulted by the second film. So, make your own call here.

Lalo Schifrin’s legendary dun-dun-daada dun-dun daada theme to Mission Impossible may well be what has kept this franchise going at all. MI gives us precious few James Bond gadgets to arouse the technophiles, one woman at a time for Ethan Hunt, but WOW! What a theme. They could just crank the theme over a scene of 20 people walking peaceably to the park for a picnic and the scene would be riveting…up to a point. That’s where storytelling is supposed to take up the slack and as of yet, the MI franchise is still lacking there. Still, I’d rather see this than the Joel Schumacher Batman crapchise! It’s not great, but it can be fun.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 5/25/00
Time in minutes 125
Director john Woo
Studio Paramount

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Dinosaur

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I am not going to lie to you. Dinosaur has the simplest, most straightforward story since the dinosaur segment in Fantasia – but MY GOD the computer animation will knock your hair off. If you saw Jurassic Park and Bug’s Life and Toy Story, you might think, ah so what? You play Myst, you’re used to pretty textures and photorealistic landscapes, sure fine whatever. These thunder lizards breathe and shake and their muscles twitch and their wattles wobble and their weight presses them into the ground. The shadows are finally dark, not with that strange disembodied general glowing problem that has pervaded computer animation. The monkeys fur flutters softly, this is not Jumanji. This is freaking real creatures rolling smoothly across stunning landscapes and being alive. I swear, my jaw did not lift off my chest the first 30 minutes.

It’s gorgeous. It’s beautiful. If you saw the 3 minute preview tacked on to the Bug’s Life DVD you might have thought, wow, that looks pretty good. OH MY GOD. If you saw the preview with the unfortunate quote of “you need help from the love monkey” you might have thought “Oh brother,” and crossed it off your list. Well, the Love Monkey’s character is actually pretty nicely developed, and I mean, his fur! The monkeys and dinosaurs do talk, and they talk well, they are funny and they are sincere and it’s all very simple and straightforward. Remember how scary and awful the humans’ faces looked in Toy Story 1; all immobile and puppety? No more – we have some serious face animation and expression and wow oh wow. It’s not a musical, it’s kind of a drama (outlook: dire most of the show) but it’s full of positive messages for kids and some knockout visuals.

There is one scene where it’s raining, and computer animation buffs can appreciate this: it looks utterly real. The rain pattering off and sliding down the scales, splashing the dust, the hazy distance, the trickling moving foreground. Wow. Fire blazing, reflecting everywhere. Dust sticking to slightly moist faces. Muscles shaking from effort, cheeks puffing and flapping from exhaustion. Oh yes the whole thing is amazing to see. I can’t really even fault them for story because there is a story, it’s just (literally) the oldest one ever told and it’s simple and mostly predictable but it serves to get us from point A to B. The voice casting is unobtrusive (I recognized Julianna Margulies partway through but otherwise was not distracted by familiarity) and the score is adequate. I seriously was agog sucking up all the sights. I took almost no notes except to point out Chrone (?), a character of the same species as our lead, had the best face acting of all the characters (hooray for his leads!) and I simply wrote the word “agape,” for that is what I was: an ape agape at what a bunch of ones and zeros can do.

MPAA Rating PG
Release date 5/19/00
Time in minutes 82
Director Eric Leighton, Ralph Zondag
Studio Walt Disney