Friday, December 10, 2010

Scarface (1983) * * * *

Directed by: Brian De Palma

Starring: Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, Steven Bauer, Robert Loggia

A few years back, Brian De Palma, the director of Scarface, was approached to remaster the film's score to include modern day hip-hop songs which glorify the gangster lifestyle. Why? Because many hip-hop artists (and let's face it, gangsters) patterned themselves around Pacino's Tony Montana and his seemingly extravagant lifestyle. De Palma refused this idea because his ideas for Scarface are less superficial. All you need is just a little insight to realize that De Palma isn't glorifying Montana's life, but instead shows how it can suck to be the king, especially if you are paranoid and hooked on cocaine, which is the drug you sell for a living. De Palma's Scarface is brilliant because it is about how absolute power absolutely corrupts and ultimately destroys.

Scarface is a movie about surface and how seductive it can be. As the film opens, Pacino's Montana arrives in Miami after being released from Castro's Cuba. He was a prisoner in Castro's jails and immediately makes waves with immigration due to his bravado. It doesn't take him long to fall in with drug dealers and the criminal element, which suits him fine because his goal is power and the luxuries that a cocaine millionaire can afford him. He ingratiates himself with Miami kingpin Frank Lopez (Loggia), who has a leggy blonde named Elvira (Pfeiffer) who catches Tony's eye. It doesn't much matter to Tony that she doesn't seem to like him. She is but another luxury that he desires.

Soon enough, Tony craves for more than just being second fiddle to Frank and cuts side deals with a South American drug lord named Sosa (Paul Shenar), who is much more merciless than Frank. When Frank finds out about Tony's side deals, he attempts to have him killed, but fails. This sets up a virtuoso scene in which Tony gets rid of Frank and usurps power. This was what Tony was working toward, but he finds that such luxury comes with fear that it will all go away.

We soon see Tony living a giant mansion with all of the latest security gadgets to protect him, but he seems more like a prisoner. He can't go out without bodyguards and fears constantly that he would be ripped off or killed at any minute. Another wrinkle is the arrival of his sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio), whom Tony has incestuous feelings for and does his best to keep other men out of her life. With all of this to juggle, it comes as no surprise that Tony becomes hooked on his own product to the point that he keeps a mound of coke on his desk for him to dig into like a bowl of M & M's.

The score that De Palma was approached to change was done by Giorgio Moroder, whose synthesizer-laced score underlined the very vision De Palma wanted to create: the appearance of flash and style with none of the substance. To change this in any way would've been detrimental to the film's themes. There is no attempt at glorification here, just a look at what would be a tragic life.

It's difficult to discuss Scarface without discussing Pacino. He is an iconic actor of many depths. Any one scene in the film can suggest bravado mixed with loneliness and fear. Cocaine fuels the outer bravado while trying to quash the inner demons. How does the coke ultimately make Tony feel? Like George Carlin said famously, "Cocaine makes you feel like having more cocaine." But Pacino plays each scene with boundless energy. He's eminently watchable, especially as he self-destructs in the chaotic final scenes.

So why would gangsters and hip-hop artists want to emulate Tony Montana when they should see him as a cautionary tale? Because they simply see the superficial and nothing else. They see Montana as a powerful man who takes what he wants and kills anyone who gets in his way. But what they fail to see is a man who can't enjoy success and its spoils. Perhaps it's because he chose to wrong field to be successful in. It's not a profession with a long shelf life, except maybe for Frank Lopez, who seemed to stay ahead by "flying straight" as he puts it or at least having some ability to enjoy his money, despite how he got it. 

Scarface was written by Oliver Stone, who specializes in movies with tortured protagonists who consistently battle themselves. His and De Palma's vision was certainly the correct one. Had Scarface been just a tale of the rise and fall of a drug dealer, it wouldn't have worked so well. But with Pacino, Stone, and De Palma all on the same page with their vision, Scarface is masterfully done. 10 years after this film, De Palma and Pacino teamed up for Carlito's Way, Carlito could've been been an older, wiser Tony Montana if a.) he lived that long and b.) had any insight into himself. Carlito's Way itself was a great film and in a way it serves as a companion piece to this one, if Tony would've allowed himself any moment of soul in the quest to rule the world that would eventually crush him.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Sure Thing (1985) * * * *

Directed by: Rob Reiner

Starring: John Cusack, Daphne Zuniga, Anthony Edwards, Tim Robbins

At one point (many years ago), The Sure Thing was my favorite movie. Period. I would rent it weekly at the video store and make sure that each of my friends watched it so that they would love it like I did. Their reaction was much more tepid than mine. I'm sure they liked it, thought of it as a sweet romantic comedy, and moved on with their lives. Something about The Sure Thing really stuck with me. At the time, it idealized romance for me. Since the plight of the characters was so touching, I started to believe that every couple should start out disliking each other at first point and fall in love after a series of misadventures. Wouldn't it be more fun that way? I also waited impatiently for a sequel. After all, this wouldn't be the last I ever see of Gib and Allison, would it?

As it turns out, love is a lot simpler without all the drama. It's very difficult to have someone overcome that bad first impression of you and if a girl doesn't like you, it means she doesn't like you and isn't holding a secret crush on you because she fears rejection or something else. And biggest lesson learned of all: You can't make someone love you. Even knowing all of this now, I still believe The Sure Thing contains delightful material and remains a sweet, touching comedy.

In the age of the Internet and cell phones, it would be very difficult to make this sort of film today. This is a film that really only could've been made in the mid-80s and remaking it today would take away its unique approach to teenage love. The plot is certainly as timeless and retread as any other road romantic comedy. College freshman Walter "Gib" Gibson (Cusack) is a likable guy who doesn't take his studies as seriously as his social life. This catches up with him and because he's failing English, he persuades an attractive classmate (Zuniga) to tutor him in English.  It turns out he's not as interested in English as he is Allison and Zuniga invites him to get out of her life.

Fast forward to Christmas break. Gib is invited by his high-school buddy Lance (Edwards) to come to his California college over break to meet and get lucky with The Sure Thing (Nicolette Sheridan-looking foxy in a white bikini). This propels Gib into action and he hitches a ride with a nerdy couple and, of course, Allison, who signed up for the ride to visit her long-distance boyfriend in California. Because Gib and Allison didn't care for each other in the first place, it comes as no surprise that their constant bickering gets them thrown out of the ride.

Together, they have to hitchhike their way to California, meanwhile getting to know each other and eventually fall in love by the time they hit California.

I'm certainly not giving away something plotwise that wouldn't be figured out quickly.   But The Sure Thing works better than most teen romantic comedies of the time (and today) because the leads are human.   They are insecure, likable, interesting, charming, and we care about them.  They are not 30-somethings pretending to be teenagers (like in Porky's).   They also don't seem to know everything about sex at the ripe old age of 18 either.     All of this was refreshing then and comparing to teen romances of today, this is refreshing now.

Director Rob Reiner was just starting out in film directing when making The Sure Thing. It was his follow-up to This Is Spinal Tap and box-office smashes like A Few Good Men, The Princess Bride, and The American President were still ahead of him.    Here he shows a deft comic touch and a knack for moving things along.   There isn't slapstick or gross-out humor, but comedy that comes from the characters' personalities and their unusual situation.    Such humor comes out in the scene in which Gib and Allison are caught in the rain and come across an abandoned trailer attempting to seek shelter in it:

Gib (banging the door lock with a rock). It's important that THIS place has an airtight security system...IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE!!

Allison: I have a credit card

Gib: (slowing up the banging of the door) Credit cards work on a totally different kind of lock. Oh, you have a credit card.

Allison: Oh, but my Dad told me specifically that I can only use it in case of an emergency.

Gib: Well, maybe one will come up!

The two don't shout at each other and no one breaks something or slips in the mud.  It actually works to get a laugh and succeeds.   The film is very much like that.   It takes the road less taken, which is great. 

Dead Poets Society (1989) * *

Directed by: Peter Weir

Starring: Robin Williams, Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard

 Dead Poets Society is meant as a deep film in which students at a stuffy prep school are taught to be themselves through an unconventional teacher and a love of poetry. Throughout the film, I keep expecting more.    When the film was over, I couldn't help but think, "Is that it?"

There are a couple of issues at work here that prevent Dead Poets Society from being successful. One is its star, Robin Williams, who for the most part isn't playing "Robin Williams" here, but a thoughtful young man who wants the best for his students. However, in a few scenes, Williams (as Professor John Keating), is allowed to lapse into his standup persona and it undermines the goodwill built up earlier.    He is introducing Shakespeare to his class and cracks them up with impersonations of Marlon Brando and John Wayne playing Shakespeare characters. Why was this necessary?    Did director Weir believe that audiences weren't ready for a shtick-free Williams? There are a few more scenes like this and it made me realize that Robin Williams was there on screen, not necessarily John Keating.    By the way, for a great shtick-free Robin Williams performance, see Good Will Hunting.

Second, a great deal of time is devoted to the Dead Poets Society, which the students learn Keating formed when he was a student at their prep school.    What do they do at their meetings? Well, the students read some poetry, dance, drink, and repeat those actions.   These scenes are formless, shapeless and don't really amount to anything.   Reading poetry is really not cinematic.   Throw in a campfire and some oddball behavior and you really have something non-cinematic.

Finally, Dead Poets Society doesn't succeed in reaching its ultimate goal, which is to move the viewer as these kids transform before our eyes from stuffy prep school kids into remarkable, independent individuals. This idea culminates in the final scene, in which Keating, thrown out of school for being held responsible for a student's suicide, gathers his personal items and is saluted by the students who all stand on their desks shouting, "O Captain, My Captain" (the Walt Whitman poem the students study earlier in the film).   If having the students express their own individuality was Keating's goal, he failed. Shouldn't each student say farewell in his own way rather than each standing on his desk?   That would drive the point home a lot more poignantly.

The film's screenplay won the Original Screenplay Oscar, which baffles me.    It beat out Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors, which movingly and boldly told two dovetailing stories of the belief that we live in a Godless universe.  Dead Poets Society is a film of missed opportunities and good intentions.   It simply doesn't develop enough to be the thoughtful and stirring film it wants so desperately to be.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987) * * * 1/2

Planes, Trains and Automobiles Movie Review

Directed by: John Hughes

Starring: Steve Martin, John Candy

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is not only a road/buddy movie, but it's sort of an unofficial Thanksgiving classic. Its stars play road warriors who want to get home for Thanksgiving, but yet the weather and the aforementioned modes of travel have other ideas.   However, this movie is not only very funny, but also very moving, especially in how it deals with John Candy's Del Griffith.

Del is a traveling salesman who says, "I haven't been home in years."   One can actually believe that when you see the gigantic trunk he lugs with him when he travels.   During a trip from New York to Chicago two days before Thanksgiving, he encounters Neil Page (Martin), who is the opposite of Del in virtually every way.  Del is a large bundle of energy dressed in multiple layers of clothing.   He is friendly, perhaps overly so, to the point in which Neil dresses him down in a classic motel room scene.   How much does Del talk?   Neil says, "I can tolerate any insurance seminar. I can let them go on and on with a huge smile on my face.   They'll ask me how I can stand it. I'd say because I've been with Del Griffith, I can take anything."   However, you can sense that the years of road travel have left Del as a lonely soul who only wants to please and find someone to talk to.

Martin's Neil is a well-to-do advertisting executive who dresses sharply and is neatly groomed.  He would rather be left alone.   Pleasing people is certainly not on his agenda.   It's almost fitting that he would stuck in bad travel situations with Del and maybe even poetic justice.   No matter what, he can't seem to shake Del and that may turn out to be good thing.   He needs someone like Del to show him that he too needs others, more than he even realizes.

I suppose these underlying themes are what makes Planes, Trains and Automobiles better than the average road/buddy picture.   Make no mistake, this movie has plenty of funny scenes and many of them grow out of personalities rather than contrivances.   For instance, the scene in which Neil and Del wind up driving on the wrong side of the highway and ignore warnings from another driver.   It wouldn't have been funny if they simply went the wrong way and encountered trouble.   Instead, the scene builds on a series of misunderstandings and even a bit of arrogance from Del and Neil. "He's drunk," says Del, "How does he know where we're going?" Neil agrees, which may be one of the few times he agrees with Del and he may regret that he did.

The movie was released in 1987 and it comes before the age of cell phones and the Internet.   I don't think the movie would work if it is remade and set in today's world.  Because there are no cell phones or Internet, guys like Del and Neil have to communicate more and thus learn about each other and themselves.   Martin and Candy prove not only to be talented comedians, but also actors with range and depth to handle not only the comedy but the underlying drama.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Zombieland (2009) * *

Zombieland Movie Review

Directed by: Ruben Fleischer

Starring: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin

It seems that when dealing with zombies in these types of films, whether the filmmakers are trying to be straight, parody the material, or make an action comedy, everything comes down to a climactic fight with the undead. That means lots of zombies are killed (again), lots of stuff gets blown up, and lots of rounds of ammunition fired. Truth be told, there is only so much one can do with zombies. Usually, they are ambling along while their intended prey is running away at full speed, but the prey becomes outnumbered by sheer numbers. They make uninteresting villains and watching a movie in which the heroes kill them by the dozens starts to feel like watching a very high-tech video game.

Zombieland begins well enough, with a loner nicknamed Columbus (Eisenberg) trying to stay alive in a world overrun by zombies. He has numerous rules he lives by which keep him alive, such as "Don't Be A Hero" and "Don't Use Public Restrooms". He has good reasons not to do these things. Along the way, he hooks up with another loner who drives a black Escalade named Tallahassee (Harrelson). Harrelson's on a quest not just to kill zombies, but to find Twinkies. This gets them into more trouble than they counted on, but Harrelson is really adamant about his need for Twinkies.

Once the two hook up with a pair of con-artist sisters (Breslin and Stone), the film goes quite some time without much action. When there is action, the foursome shoot a few zombies in the head and go about their merry way. Zombieland loses a lot of steam in the middle and since you know the last 20 minutes or so will involve a colossal fight with hundreds of zombies, there isn't a lot of hope that the film will end satisfactorily. The energy created in the opening scenes simply can't be sustained because, again, there is only so much a filmmaker can do with zombies. Although there is a funny cameo involving a major comic actor once the foursome hits Beverly Hills.

I don't know. The actors here do what they can and make convincing action heroes, but it becomes clear soon enough that yet another zombie movie has been made with pretty much the same results. A few years ago, Shaun Of The Dead came out and started off as an interesting spoof of zombie movies, but wound up just being another one in which heroes are trapped in a building fighting them off. OK, it's true that the final fight takes place in an amusement park, but the rules of killing zombies still apply.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Yes Man (2008) * *

Yes Man Movie Review

Directed by: Peyton Reed

Starring: Jim Carrey, Zooey Deschanel, Bradley Cooper, Terence Stamp

Just like Robin Williams, Jim Carrey is fine when he's not playing "Jim Carrey". You know, the guy who expends countless amounts of energy mugging and shticking it up for the camera. His attempts to try and create something funny borders on desperation, as if he's throwing stuff at the wall praying that something sticks.

Carrey needs strong material so he doesn't have to try and carry the whole show. The Truman Show, Dumb And Dumber, and Man On The Moon are three examples of Carrey's movies in which he can actually play a character and not a "character". He's effective in that type of environment. Yes Man, however, is not a film with strong comic material, so it's up to Carrey to save it. Ugh.

Yes Man is similar to Carrey's 1997 Liar, Liar, in which he is unable to lie during a 24-hour spell. Here, he plays Carl Allen, a bank loan officer with a very negative view on life. His wife left him three years ago, which has left him gun shy. As a result, he becomes more of a shut-in who avoids his friends and opportunities for promotion at work. As a bank loan officer, saying no makes his life easy. In terms of his relationships with his friends, it becomes much more of a burden.

One day, an old friend visits him and talks him into attending a "YES" seminar, in which a motivational speaker (Stamp) manages to convince Carrey to say yes to everything instead of saying no. The idea of motivational speakers remains baffling to me. Like George Carlin said, "You either want to do something or you don't. What's the big mystery?" As a result, Carrey begins to say yes to everything, including pop-up ads on his computer, telemarketing calls, a lascivious old lady, and giving his pocket money to the homeless. He also meets and falls in love with Allison (Deschanel), a wannabe singer and artist whose free spirit seems in tune with Carl's newfound lust for life.

I won't go much further into the plot, but things get pretty predictable. You know Allison will find out about Carl "having" to say yes to everything and won't speak to him. You also can guess that the motivational speaker will not be as he seems and that everything will be resolved neatly. The biggest problem with Yes Man is that there isn't much here. It's very thin soup. Having a guy who always said no become a guy who always says yes isn't a plot that is full of inspired comic possibilities. There is a chuckle or two, but that's about it. It's not as if Yes Man takes a good idea and goes nowhere with it. The idea is only so-so to begin with and goes nowhere with it.

The actors try hard here to make it work. Carrey has scenes with shtick that merely draws attention to how hard he'll try for a laugh. To me, the harder you have to work means the less funny you actually are. Yes Man is a comedy that ultimately produces innocuous results, no matter how many faces Carrey makes. Isn't he getting a little old for that shit?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Social Network (2010) * * * *

The Social Network Movie Review

Directed by: David Fincher

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake

Like most movies "based on a true story", The Social Network probably takes a few liberties, especially with its vision of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.   Real life can be boring.  Movie dramatizations are more fun.   Anyone who doubts that can look at the CBS Apollo 13 landing footage on YouTube and compare that with the ending of Ron Howard's Apollo 13.

I know next to nothing about Zuckerberg, but The Social Network tells a fascinating and cinematic story about how and why he founded Facebook, which has made him the world's youngest billionaire.   If the film is to believed, Zuckerberg is brilliant, condescending, paranoid, socially ignorant, awkward, and a genius: all in one.   If Zuckerberg were depicted as a warm, friendly guy who is being wrongly sued by envious golddiggers, then The Social Network would lose its trump card.  

Zuckerberg (Eisenberg) founded Facebook at Harvard in 2003 after a particularly bad night.  His girlfriend dumps him due to his obvious lack of conversation ability.  It's not that he can't speak.  He chooses to speak like, well, as his girlfriend succinctly puts it, "an asshole."  The opening dialogue of Aaron Sorkin's screenplay plays like an ADD version of Who's On First?    After the dumping, Zuckerberg gets drunk, blasts his ex with nasty blog entries, and hacks into the Harvard academic club directories he so wants to be a part of.    He creates a simple program in which users can match club girls against each other to determine which is the hottest.   This causes a system crash hours later, starting the chain of events.

His actions gain the attention of both the right and wrong people. He is brought before Harvard's administration, which echoes two other depositions he appears for later as former partners or wannabe partners sue him for their share of Facebook's rapidly growing pie.   The wannabe partners I mentioned are the Winklevoss twins (both played by Armie Hammer).

They want Zuckerberg to help them form a master directory called "The Harvard Connection"
which Zuckerberg agrees to do, but then quickly ditches them to form Facebook.
This outrages the twins, who feel he stole their "intellectual property".   What's so compelling about the deposition scenes that are dispersed throughout the film is that the plaintiffs seem to have a case, but do they really?

Facebook is funded by its "co-founder and CFO" Eduardo Saverin (Garfield), who puts up the funds to get the project off the ground.   This partnership works out well locally, but once Facebook begins to expand, Saverin is clearly out of his league in trying to keep up with the expansion.   He lacks the boldness and confidence of Sean Parker (Timberlake), who stumbles across Facebook as it hits the west coast.   Parker is the founder of Napster, which was shut down due to court injunctions, but made Parker rich and a player.   Zuckerberg idolizes him.   In fact, Parker is the only person Zuckerberg seems to respect and admire.   Timberlake plays Parker with a whole lot of energy and superficial likability.   He comes across as the right guy to know in order to grow the company.   He is able to gain wealthy investors, but may be doing so with smoke and mirrors.  It's to Timberlake's credit that he is able to create a "waiting for the other shoe to drop" feeling from me with his performance.

The performances here are strong.   Eisenberg's Zuckerberg is tricky acting.  He plays everything close to the vest which one can attribute to inept social skills mixed with the burden of genius. His reason for the creation of Facebook is murky at first.  He doesn't appear to want to drive in the fast lane like Parker and the money doesn't seem to matter.  However, the powerful last scene of the movie provides the answer which can explain, but not excuse, his behavior and motives.  I also liked Garfield's naivete and he comes as close to being a hero in this film as one could expect.   He is a business major, but simply doesn't have the teeth or drive to excel. 

The Social Network's biggest strength is Aaron Sorkin's screenplay, which takes what seems to be unfilmable material and makes it cohesive and understandable.  You understand the music even if you don't always understand the words.   Watching someone program a computer isn't the most cinematic of events, but since director Fincher and Sorkin make it clear that Zuckerberg is using this to create his ultimate revenge against rejection, it is absorbing.

David Fincher has made some strong films in recent years that work outside of convention and formula: Seven, The Game, Zodiac, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, and now The Social Network.  Fight Club is among his well-known films, but I have mixed feelings about it despite its following.   Each film above is one which can't be pigeonholed into a typical plot and outcome. Fincher's film examine the atypical aspects of human nature and specializes in creating complex movie characters. The Social Network is about an unusual protagonist who creates a revolutionary social network and is among the most fascinating films I've seen in a while.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Karate Kid (2010) * * *

The Karate Kid Movie Review

Directed by: Harald Zwart

Starring: Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, Taraji P. Henson

The Karate Kid is very similar to the plot of the 1984 film in which it was remade, but it's also remarkably different.   Similar because the plotlines and the outcome are the same, but different because the characters are fresher and deeper this time.  Subtle changes such as having the hero as a 12-year-old Detroit kid moving to China make the hero a little more sympathetic. He is truly a stranger in a strange land. Although I must say from personal experience that moving to a far away place is something that takes a lot of adjustment, if you ever can adjust.   But enough about me.

I suppose, though, it is this life experience that allowed me to sympathize with Smith's Dre Parker. His single mother takes a job in China and moves halfway across the world with Dre. Almost as soon as he arrives, Dre tries making friends but is pounded by toughs when trying to befriend a young girl who appears to like him. These kids are sadistic and ruthless, which comes as no surprise when we meet their kung fu teacher later in the film. The teacher uses his students as weapons almost and it's a wonder he's not brought up on charges for something.

Jaden Smith is not a very big kid and is rather slight, which makes it very believable that he would be unable to outfight these thugs. After witnessing Dre take one beating too many, the maintenance man at Dre's apartment complex (Chan) intervenes and fights off the thugs. How he does this is very different than in the original. Chan finds a way to choreograph the fight so that the thugs wind up beating each other up.   You'll have to see it to know what I mean.

Pat Morita's Mr. Miyagi from the 1984 version was an original performance which earned Morita an Oscar nomination. Chan, however, plays Mr. Han, who is only similar to Miyagi in that he teaches the kid martial arts. Plus, Miyagi is Japanese while Han is Chinese, but the contrasts don't end there. Chan's Mr. Han is a solemn figure. He brings along a lot of emotional baggage which is revealed in a powerful scene later. It is in this scene that Dre can finally teach something to Mr. Han which gives their relationship an added dimension. I think this idea is handled better in this film than in the original.

I also liked the energy Taraji P. Henson brings to the table as Dre's mother. She is spunky and outspoken, trying to very hard to assimilate her family into Eastern culture while dealing the same issues her son is going through. She strikes up a friendship with Mr. Han and sees him as a surrogate father for Dre, although no romance develops.

Everything boils down to the tournament finale in which Dre and the thugs compete. There are some CGI effects here added to the kids' moves. After all, can a 12-year old really deliver kicks like that? Can anyone for that matter? Because I saw the original, the outcome is determined, but it's still fun to watch. Just like the original.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Pirates Of The Carribean: At World's End (2007) * *

Directed by: Gore Verbinski

Pirates-At World's End is the third installment of this lucrative series that is only slightly more intelligible than "Dead Man's Chest", which was a whirlwind of breakneck-paced action sequences that still managed to put me down for a 10-15 minute nap. Sometimes it's just as boring to have everything happening in a movie as it is to have nothing happen. At World's End, however, has action, but it is so caught up in its confusing story that I simply gave up trying to figure it out.

I normally have fairly good comprehension of movie plots. But like The Lord Of The Rings series, the Pirates series throws so many characters, names, places, and subplots at you that juggling them all becomes a burden. It becomes obvious that there really are no rules to govern anything that's going on. Characters can do just about anything at any given time to be of service to the plot. The very nasty looking Davy Jones, who is still looking for people to send to his Locker, can change faces and shapes inexplicably. Other characters who are seemingly human can have their hearts carved out of their chests and still live to tell about it. Oh, and let's not forget the returning Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush), who was brought back to life at the end of the last installment. His allegiances and personalities seem to switch on a dime and another newcomer to the plot, Captain Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat) undergoes so many quick transformations that it's a wonder he doesn't give himself whiplash. I wouldn't dream of giving away plot secrets, mostly because I'm not even sure I know any.

I thought the first Pirates Of The Caribbean film "The Curse Of The Black Pearl" could've been a pretty good film, but it overstayed its welcome by a half-hour. By the end of this film, you realize that the whole series has overstayed its welcome. I admired Johnny Depp's performance in the first film, which garnered him an Oscar nomination, but by this installment he almost seems like an afterthought. Sure he's hanging around, but he doesn't seem to serve much purpose, except to continue his goofy act from the first two films. The idea that he seems to go about things without plans (or seemingly so) was unique in the first film. By now, however, everyone else is doing the same thing.

Oh, and Keith Richards makes an appearance as Depp's long-lost father, but in the pirate makeup, Keith actually looks much better than he does in real life. Maybe he should've lobbied to keep the film's makeup artist on his personal staff. Nonetheless, even his character inexplicably turns up on a ship long after you figure he disappeared from the scene. This film runs about 3 hours and it appears that there may be enough plot left over for a fourth installment, which I hope doesn't come to fruition.

At World's End, like the first two, is technically sound. There are plenty of icky creatures and undead people around to give it color. Kudos to the editor for at least attempting to make sense out of a senseless story and even more unpredictable characters, but his efforts are for naught. At World's End plays more like an explosion at the screenplay factory than anything else.

The Filth and The Fury (2000) * * *

Directed by: Julien Temple

"We broke up at the right time for all the wrong reasons," says Johnny Rotten, the Sex Pistols' lead "singer". Actually, if you think about it, the Sex Pistols weren't a band that was formed with staying power in mind. Could you imagine a 40-year-old Rotten and company continuing to try and keep ahead of the pack in the punk rock movement? Punk rock is more or less a young man's game. It's easier to be rebellious & obnoxious as a young man who doesn't know much else. Seeing a man over 30 spitting on cameras & dressing in rags would be rather scary. You would wonder when he would go out and get a real job.

The Sex Pistols were indeed a necessary band at a time in 1970's England when there was a long trash strike, the poor stayed poor, and hopelessness was abundant. The Pistols were an angry alternative voice to the establishment that couldn't have cared less about what was going on. In the working class districts, the dissidence formed in the persons of The Sex Pistols. They became popular and infamous at the same time, their act wore thin with the establishment while being embraced by the disenfranchised. I liked the footage showing the band holding a benefit for the families of striking workers. It is unusual to see the band serving cake and ice cream to kids, but in reality the band was about raising its voice for the unheard middle class. Rotten himself says that God Save The Queen was written as a love poem for England and his disgust about what was happening to it. "God Save The Queen" was a #1 hit in the UK, but the charts refused to print that fact, which only amused the Sex Pistols. The media's refusal to embrace the Pistols only helped to further their cause more. It's odd that while the single was a big hit, it caused Rotten to be attacked and fear for his life & the Pistols needed to be booked in small clubs under assumed names to avoid more scutiny.

The so-called "decent" Englishmen began acting in the same manner they seemingly hated the Sex Pistols for. For all of history, patriotism meant that you speak nothing but good about your country or else. The film makes that point very well. Make no mistake, the Sex Pistols were involved in many a fight and criminal act in their day. When the band toured America, they all had trouble getting visas due to their criminal backgrounds. Bassist Sid Vicious attacked a rowdy fan with his bass guitar, but oddly enough, since he could barely play the thing and it was unplugged during some shows, I guess he felt he had to do something with it. Never mind that the fan was attempting to attack Sid for calling the crowd names. But by the time the group began touring America, its discontent with themselves was obvious. Vicious was headlong into a deadly heroin addiction that Rotten attempted to get him out of.

Guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook were traveling more with the band's manager Malcolm McLaren and becoming mere pawns in the ongoing battle between himself and the band. The band's last concert was revealing. They were disgusted with each other. The band only played one encore because Rotten says, "I'm a lazy bastard." They were defeated and deflated, not just by each other, but by their puppetmaster manager McLaren. You could read the surrender on their faces during the final song. Their separation after only two years was inevitable. Regardless of whether you like the Sex Pistols music, the documentary is well made and intriguing.

I didn't really care for the music. The songs, while forceful and angry, were shapeless and kind of began to blend into one another, indistinguishable. But the film is more about why the music needed to be played than anything else. Johnny Rotten by his own admission couldn't sing, but he wondered why he had to be able to anyway. The music was more about the rebellion than sounding good. Actually, the band, other than Rotten, didn't look like the punks that came later. I always had a question about punk rock that the film answered for me. If punk rock was supposed to be about being anti-conformity, why did its groups and fans begin to all wear the same thing and look the same? Isn't that conformity too? The band members believed that as well. They were rather appalled that the punk rock movement became yet another type of conformity. Whether one is a follower of the establishment or anti-establishment and doesn't think or act for himself, then what is the difference?

It was different to see the band's members as talking heads without actually being able to see their faces. The band members were backlit so their faces were obscured while McLaren talked from behind a bondage mask, more as a puppet than a puppeteer. Rotten reminded me a little of John Lennon in terms of how the years seemed to have given him wisdom. He wishes he had that wisdom when trying to deal with Sid and Nancy Spungen, whom everyone in the group to a man hated. Rotten says, "I could take on all of England, but couldn't take on one heroin addict."   His hatred for heroin is told in no uncertain terms as was his love for the younger, dumber Vicious.

Steve Jones and Paul Cook (as well as original bass player Glen Matlock) also come across as thoughtful and knowing, while regretting that things ended the way they did.   But, in reality, the breakup probably was the best thing for them.   They would've become passe and overlooked, taken for granted, and ultimately become part of the establishment they rebelled against.   Punk is and was a young man's game.

Sid & Nancy (1986) * * *

Sid and Nancy Movie Review

Directed by: Alex Cox

Starring: Gary Oldman, Chloe Webb

I simply can't imagine why someone would ever want to even try heroin, especially after watching the depths in which Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen sank to in Sid & Nancy. By the end, their lives were but an existence. They were dead, but just forgot to stop breathing. The second half of the film is devoted to the quick downward spiral the two lovers were in. Whole days drifted out of focus and sometimes the drugs left them without even the energy to extinguish a fire that threatened to destroy their fleabag hotel room. Sid Vicious, as played by Gary Oldman, is a study in unusual celebrity. He had no real talent and became the face and personality of The Sex Pistols in the public eye, mostly because he was such a fuckup. He was told in no uncertain terms by the band's management that he was only in the band because his fucking up created publicity and cash. He was the train wreck that, while horrifying, you couldn't turn away from. While he was The Sex Pistols bass player, his abilities were nil and at times the band would unplug his bass.

His attempts at a post-Sex Pistols career included a version of My Way that is painful to hear. Through all this, he and Nancy were clinging to each other as their lives turned into nothing. Nancy's role in Sid's life is that of a driving force. She does what she can to get him paid more than he's worth. Part of this is because she believes in him and part of it is to feed their drug habit. But, according to this film, it seems Sid and Nancy might've been able to live happily together under different circumstances. To listen to the remaining members of The Sex Pistols talk, she was the devil incarnate. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. To say that Sid would've been OK if he never met Nancy would be inaccurate. His mother isn't brought up in the movie, but she was a heroin addict herself and played a key role in his death. He would've found other ways to stay messed up because that was the only way he felt he could be accepted.

The second half of Sid & Nancy is better than the first because of its unrelenting images of a hermitic existence. The first half kind of hits key points in the budding Sid & Nancy relationship, but overall The Sex Pistols were hardly used at all. Cox chose to focus more on the destruction that heroin had on two lost souls. If I sound a bit sympathetic, well it's because how could you not be? It's difficult not to feel sorry for people whose lives are not worth living. By the time Nancy was stabbed to death (the movie claims it was an accident, but in reality it may have been more deliberate), death must've been a welcome relief.

If you judge by the end in which Sid gets into a cab ride with his dearly departed, death must've been very welcomed by Sid also. That scene is quite powerful because Nancy is dressed in all white, almost as an angel, which is maybe how Sid saw her even during the worst of times.

Gary Oldman's career has been pretty steady since this film. He has played villains, creeps, heroes, and oddballs. Here, he is playing someone who earns sympathy without even trying. Would Sid have wanted sympathy? Probably not, but Oldman's portrayal of an inarticulate addict is genuine and engrossing. Where has Chloe Webb gone? After this and Twins, she has pretty much fallen off the face of the Earth, but in Sid & Nancy she creates a person who may have been a decent agent if her life didn't get destroyed by heroin. She's pushy, plucky, but also loves Sid even if the rest of the world doesn't.

Both actors are courageous in their portrayals of two people made for each other, even if the results were tragic.

Borat: Cultural Learnings Of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan (2006) * * *

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan Movie Review

Directed by: Larry Charles

Sacha Baron Cohen created the character of Borat on his TV show Da Ali G Show. I wasn't wholly familiar with the character and the movie does introduces him to the people who are unfamiliar, which is probably many. He is a TV reporter in Kazakhstan, a country which is very unlikely to have many TVs or even much electricity. Borat is married and has a son, but doesn't seem to mind leaving them behind to go to America and film a documentary of what he learns. I don't know where in Kazakhstan one would view the finished product, but I digress.

Borat is very friendly, maybe so much so that he is naively inappropriate with his language, views, and behavior. To him, going #2 in a paper bag and bringing it to a dinner table full of guests is no cause for alarm. Neither is fighting his sidekick Azamat (Ken Davitian) naked all over a posh hotel. Neither is showing off pictures of him and his son in which the son's arm may not necessarily be his longest limb. Through it all, Borat horrifies and angers many he comes in contact with. Those he doesn't wound up trying to sue him later in real life.

Cohen is engulfed in this character; to the point in which Borat becomes unique and memorable without the slightest idea that an actor is playing him. He is cheerfully unaware of his impropriety in various ways, kind of like Archie Bunker. Borat, like Bunker, spouts off at the mouth and completely believes his own bullshit without the slightest idea that he is the joke. Listen to him discuss his Jewish innkeepers during an overnight stay. However, the film, which only runs about 85 minutes before the credits, starts to feel lengthy once Borat stops wanting to learn about America and begins a single-minded quest to marry Pamela Anderson, who he sees on a Baywatch rerun on TV. The buildup and payoff here is the weakest part of the movie. Pamela Anderson was never someone who interested me and Borat pretty much lets me know why.

Despite this, Borat is a funny film that shows a tendency of some Americans to be racist, dumb, stuck up, smart, and even find a way to stay cool in the face of rude behavior. It's no wonder the filmmakers were being sued (albeit unsuccessfully) by some of the people in this film. Borat allowed them to let their guards down and show us all what they were, even if someone's looking.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008) * * * *

Slumdog Millionaire Movie Review

Directed by: Danny Boyle

This movie recently swept the Academy Awards with 8 wins and it is a sad, harrowing, exhilarating, and ultimately joyous film. It tells the story of a poor Indian slum kid named Jamal who faces down challenge after challenge in his young life only to be one question away from winning millions on an Indian version of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" Even then, he is faced with moral dilemmas and life-and- death decisions concerning the love of his life, a woman named Latika (Freida Pinto) and his brother Salim, both of whom have fallen into the dangerous employ of a local gangster.

Slumdog Millionaire juggles a love story, a crime tale, and a biography of this slum kid who is able to make chicken salad out of chicken shit almost daily using his wits and street-smarts. It does so effortlessly and without straining for any payoff or effect, which is something of a masterstroke by director Boyle. By combining contemporary cinematic storytelling with an undertow of timeless movie traditions, Slumdog Millionaire is engrossing every step of the way. I won't give away any plot points. There are no secrets or plot twists in this film like those that have been bombarding movies these days. Quite frankly, I've grown rather weary of movies that bamboozle me with a plot twist ending that essentially renders the whole movie senseless.

Slumdog Millionaire relies on the strength of its rags to almost riches plot and its interesting characters to keep it humming along. The last thing I needed was an ending in which I find out it was all a dream or that Jamal has multiple personalities. Without giving away specifics, it is difficult to undertake this emotional journey and not come away rooting for this guy at the end. It's amazing how much Jamal had to endure in this film, but then I realize that there are millions like him growing up in slums around the world who never get out and never even have remote hopes of escape. Slumdog Millionaire provides those hopes for Jamal because the movie takes place in Mumbai, India, where corporations are building luxury skyscrapers and creating jobs in the very slums where Jamal and his brother roamed.

It's quite unusual to see the modern world on one side of a river and the third world on the other side, but that is happening in many parts of what used to be the third world. Slumdog Millionaire is not a high budget film, but it doesn't have the look or feel of a lower budget film. It is told with strength and purpose and doesn't even try to cheapen the material with schlocky and shaky camera angles and excursions into goofiness. The movie doesn't step wrong and how rare it is to see a movie I can say that about these days.

The Ladykillers (2004) * *

Directed by: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Starring: Tom Hanks, Irma P. Hall, JK Simmons, Marlon Wayans

What a missed opportunity.   Having never seen 1955 Ladykillers which starred Alec Guiness and Peter Sellers, I entered into this film with fresh eyes and an open mind.    But despite being well-acted, the script and pacing ultimately make this version less than it should've been.

The film is awfully laid-back for a crime caper comedy.   Usually, these types of films, like Ocean's Eleven (2001) are amped up, but the tone here is rather subdued.  It doesn't have any real urgency, as if it cares about going somewhere in particular.    Much of the dialogue Hanks' Professor Dorr has to utter is long and meandering, allowing me to lose my train of thought.   The film is much the same way.

The Ladykillers starts out well enough, with Hanks' shady Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr showing up at Marva Munson's (Hall) front door wishing to rent a room.   She is an elderly, church-going, God-fearing black lady who complains a lot to the police about neighbors blasting hip-hop music.   Professor Dorr is a Southern gentleman with funny teeth and an even goofier laugh, but he really wishes to rent the room and have access to her basement.   Why?  So he and his four cronies can dig a tunnel from her home to a nearby casino and rob it, all under the unsuspecting nose of Ms. Munson.    His alibi for having his friends over is that they play "church music", which gets on Ms. Munson's good side.   Dorr and his cronies have instruments, but they play a boombox to drown out the digging noise. 

Professor Dorr is the type of man who says five words when he only needs to say two.   He is a flim-flammer, dazing the listener with seventy five cent words.   Hanks has a ball with this character, who uses so many big words that it amazes me when little ones come out also.   But the problem here is that the Coen brothers, who also wrote the adaptation, give Dorr so much to say that I found my mind wandering during his drawn-out speeches.   The Coens kill the point early and often.  But Hanks delivers spectacularly after he and Ms. Munson are outside as an explosion occurs in the basement. Ms. Munson asks what the noise was and Dorr replies, "I can't say with any absolute certainty that I heard anything at all."   Naturally, almost every word out of Professor Dorr's mouth is a lie, but Hanks has a florid delivery.

But the rest of the film lacks energy.   It is as laid back as Professor Dorr's demeanor.   Somehow, the goofballs assembled here lack the memorable qualities of the goofballs in Ocean's Eleven.  The film is not a complete loss, due mostly to the effort expended by the actors.   However, it doesn't quite work.  

Cold Mountain (2003) * * *

Directed by: Anthony Minghella

Starring: Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renee Zellweger, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Kathy Baker, Donald Sutherland

For the second time in three months, I saw a four-star movie that ended up being a three-star movie. Mona Lisa Smile starring Julia Roberts was a terrific film I saw back in April that went flat at the end. Cold Mountain went the same route. For all of the time and caring I put into the film, I expected an ending which was less anti-climactic in its execution and actually a proper ending. I won't give away the ending, but I will say that apparently writer-director Anthony Minghella didn't think his characters suffered enough.

Cold Mountain runs about two and a half hours, but for 3/4 of it, it was a beautifully filmed and sweeping Civil War romance. I enjoyed the quirky supporting characters immensely and it had a wonderful sense of time and place. But the ending should've been overwhelmingly emotional and worthy of what came before it. Enough about the ending though, let's talk about the rest.

Cold Mountain is part Homer's The Odyssey and part Gone With The Wind in terms of its story and romantic notions. The leads are Inman (Law) and Ada (Kidman), who live in Cold Mountain, North Carolina in the days before the Civil War. Inman is a quiet handyman. Ada moves to Cold Mountain with her reverend father (Sutherland) from Charleston, S.C. She doesn't expect to be thunderstruck with love upon seeing Inman for the first time, but she is. He, is in own less articulate way, is also smitten with Ada. They meet a few other times, speaking elliptically and dancing around the attraction between them until one day as war breaks out, Inman snatches Ada up in his arms for a long, perhaps last, kiss. They part ways, with Ada promising to wait for him. At the time, the war was expected to be over in a month, but as history shows, years will pass before he would hope to see her again.

She writes him almost weekly without hearing from Inman, but possesses great faith in the idea that he will return. Will he return as the same man she fell in love with and vice versa? Judging by the battle scenes in the film, probably not. But here the two may be dealing with the idea of a perfect love as opposed to the reality. This is what gets them through the lonely nights and the horror of war. Law and Kidman do what needs to be done to make a sweeping romantic epic work. They are convincingly and all-encompassingly in love and they are both noble and passionate. Plus they are both interesting as individuals and not just together. Thus, when Inman deserts the Confederate army and heads for his epic journey home, I held my breath in hopes he would get there OK.

Law and Kidman play the material as straight romantic leads. But the supporting cast led by Renee Zellweger (who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this film) are a pure contrast and all the more fun to watch. Zellweger is Ruby, who comes to Ada's aid in helping her clean up her home and life. She is a lovable loudmouth who speaks her mind fearlessly, throwing in colorful colloquialisms and swears to boot. Her role is the juiciest of the bunch and Zellweger excels in pushing the boundaries of this character. She is more than just the best friend. Also great here is Phillip Seymour Hoffman, as a wayward clergyman Law stumbles across as he attempts to get home to Cold Mountain. Hoffman is laconic but cheerfully corrupt. I also enjoyed the whole subplot involving The Home Guard, led by a monster named Teague (Ray Winstone), whose job it is to watch over Cold Mountain and protect its people from Union forces, but instead use the authority as an excuse to lord over the town.

Much of the film was shot in Romania and the snowy winter scenery and lush spring scenery makes Cold Mountain a memorable place visually. The battle scenes are also bloody but easy to follow, so we know what's happening to whom and why. But as much as I enjoyed the first two hours of the film, I was puzzled by the tone and outcome of the final thirty minutes. With all of the emotional buildup, I expected more and wanted more. But the feeling came over me that the movie was determined to end the wrong way and it did. Perhaps the alternate ending, if there is one, is better. Although it must be said that the film didn't take a complete nosedive like Gangs Of New York or Full Metal Jacket.

Anthony Minghella is a talented director and an Oscar winner for The English Patient and I've liked every one of his films, but in this film as well as The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley, he seems to hedge his bets and hold back on the endings, thus making the experience of watching his films all the more frustrating. He'll have to prove that he can close the deal and make a completely satisfying movie, rather than a film with a promise of greatness that isn't lived up to.

Punch Drunk Love (2003) * * *

Punch-Drunk Love Movie Review

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzman

After Magnolia (1999), Paul Thomas Anderson used up all of the goodwill he had with me that he earned with Boogie Nights (1997). After all, the ending consisted of thousands of frogs inexplicably raining down on its hapless characters. With the exception of two movies, Adam Sandler is pretty much a guy who grates on my nerves. But the good news about Punch-Drunk Love is that frogs don't fall from the sky and Adam Sandler is more interesting in drama.

I never really found Sandler funny when he's playing Adam Sandler. He joins Jim Carrey and Robin Williams in the category of actors who are better when not playing themselves or roles "fitting them to a tee." I never understood why people found Adam Sandler funny. He talks in a stupid, babyish voice and his humor stems from hostility and screaming at others when he gets mad. But here, in a toned down and insightful way, he explores the Adam Sandler persona. And essentially, he's not attempting to pass off fits of rage and hostility as funny. He's showing them as what they are in all of their ugliness. What fails to work in comedy works well in drama, especially this one.

Sandler plays Barry Egan, an owner of a business that sells glass toilet plungers among other odd items. He is reserved and doesn't speak much.  He's filled with pent-up rage, mainly because he has seven sisters, all of which stress him out in different ways. They sure don't treat him right and a few even refer to him as "gayboy", which sends him into a coniption. But to his sisters, this reaction is their punchline while making a joke of Barry. Barry also experiences moments of sudden sobbing, which also seems to stem from inability to healthfully express his anger over his shitty job and even shittier personal life. He is pleasant and low-key to an outside eye, but we all seem to know better.

Longing for distractions from life, he tries a phone-sex chat line in which the girl talks dirty then starts asking to borrow money. When he refuses, her boss (Hoffman) sends goons after him to shake him down. He even buys Healthy Choice pudding cups in order to cash in millions of frequent flyer miles, but explodes when he finds out he can't use them right away. The only thing which may be able to change his life for the better is a budding romance with Lena (Watson), who seems to drop into his life unexpectedly just when he needs her the most.  She likes him regardless of his faults and in fact may be the only person who can handle him right.   

Punch-Drunk Love is more or less of study of Egan and the things that drive him crazy. Is he insane? I don't know, but he sure has lots of issues. He tries to ask his brother-in-law for the name of a shrink, but the brother-in-law tells his wife and more family drama occurs. But Egan does grow in satisfying ways. His final showdown with Hoffman is fun to watch, mainly because Egan has come so far. Watson's Lena isn't really given much of a personality, but she is more of a symbol of what Egan can attain if he is able to change and grow.

Anderson's film is certainly not boring.   Is it entirely successful, like Boogie Nights? No, because it doesn't present a lucid and compelling view of a period in history, even if it is porno history. But instead it concentrates on its main character, allowing Sandler to play with type and against type all at once. Hopefully, Sandler will realize he can play someone other than himself.

The Butterfly Effect (2004) * * * 1/2

Directed by: Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber

Starring: Ashton Kutcher, Amy Smart, Melora Walters, Eric Stoltz, Ethan Suplee

I may reflect on this movie years from now and realize that it may not hold up under scrutiny. But for now, I respected it for seeing its story through to its chilling and inevitable ending. There are no surprise endings or split personalities which serve to change the nature of the story in one fell swoop. It has the courage to be what it is. I like some movies with trick endings (i.e. Fight Club, The Sixth Sense, etc.), but these days they have become so common that I sit through most films wondering where the surprise will be thrust upon me.

The Butterfly Effect derives its title from the theory that a butterfly flapping its wings somewhere in the world has effects on the weather thousands of miles away. Hey, I didn't make the theory up so don't blame me. But the point driven home here is that one minute detail can have an everlasting effect on your life. Its hero, Evan Trabor (Kutcher), seems to believe that he can change the big picture of his life and the lives of his loved ones, but continually trips over small details that change things for the worse.

I won't reveal too much plot, since much of the film contains alternate timelines, but I'll start off by saying that the film opens with Evan and his friends as children. Evan seems to encounter one damaging situation after another, but he can't remember what happened because he blacked out through most of it. For example, a dog is killed, but he only sees the dead dog in the aftermath and not how it was killed. He asks his friends to fill in the details for him, but they are reluctant to relive the various traumas that occur. By the time he reaches college, Evan and his friends are damaged goods in more ways than one.

It is here that Evan realizes he has the power to "fill in the blanks" so to speak when it comes to his blackouts. Since he blacked out, he didn't truly experience what happened and thus he can go back through his mind and through time itself to fix the traumatic situations and make life better for himself. However, with every "fix", other serious consequences occur. Sometimes to Evan and sometimes to his friends. The film is like the cinematic equivalent of the arcade game "Whack A Mole", where a mole pops up and you hit it with a mallet, only to see another mole pop up somewhere else.

I won't reveal any more plotwise, but I did like some of the touches thrown in. Ethan Suplee is a fat actor who plays Evan's college roommate. He has a weird hairdo, wears gothic clothes, and makeup. In another film, he would be an outcast, but here he gets laid with various beautiful women constantly. The performances also work, especially Kutcher's. He is a solid, likable, and believable protagonist. When this film came out, the media buzz of his romance with Demi Moore was on the downswing and the backlash was starting. Many critics bashed this film I think strictly because of something visceral against Kutcher. I have no such problems with the guy, and I believe his performance displays an acute ability to handle difficult material. For the most part, The Butterfly Effect is not a lighthearted or fun film. Kutcher lends gravity to it and allows it to work when it really shouldn't.

The Last Samurai (2003) * *

Directed by: Edward Zwick

Starring: Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Timothy Spall, Tony Goldwyn

This epic set in 1870's Japan is similar to Dances With Wolves in almost every way. But unlike the 1990 Best Picture, the inevitable switch of allegiances by the hero is rather uncompelling and unconvincing. I'll explain why later, but we're left with here is a lush looking film with good performances but no real soul. It's odd how a film with such impressive production values can also be so by the numbers.

If you saw Dances With Wolves, you remember the story. A disillusioned Civil War vet finds himself in a distant, strange land surrounded by people he intially perceives as enemies. But after spending time in their company, he grows to admire and love the strangers, going so far as to align with them when the Americans attack their homes. The story here is pretty much the same in The Last Samurai, although the land in question in Japan and not the West. Also, here the hero is taken prisoner while in Dances With Wolves the hero was not a prisoner of the strangers but a visitor. Many movies tell the same stories but do so differently and in their own way. But I think here the screenwriters faulted by making the hero hateful and an alcoholic. He despises the American army so much that if he were taken prisoner by a group of Eskimos, he'd be living in an igloo without much fuss. Here, he is a prisoner of Katsumoto, the leader of the vanishing Samurai (Watanabe), but he doesn't seem to mind all that much. When he states, "here I've have the first peaceful sleep I've had in years," somehow I get the feeling that he would have to be dragged away from the place kicking and screaming.

Cruise's character, Nathan Algren, is hired by Japanese businessmen looking to bring Japan into the modern era. Actually, he's hired to train the woefully underprepared Japanese army to combat the Samurai. The Samurai wish to stay with tradition, believing they represent the emperor's wishes. But in fact, the Emperor is but a pawn in the game being played by the Japanese businessmen and their financial interests. Algren is strictly doing this for monetary gain and his heart is certainly not into it, so this robs the conflict out of the scenes in which he is under the watch of Katsumoto. Oh, the argue briefly and in the usual way, but there's no real juice. Wouldn't it be better if Algren were solidly behind the cause and thus making his switch more emotionally satisfying for the audience?

As I stated, I admired the performances here. Cruise is asked to play a disillusioned drunk and he handles it well. Watanabe exemplifies honor, strength, and dedication to his cause. He is a true warrior and perhaps he takes Cruise prisoner because he admires his skills as a warrior as well. But ultimately I just didn't care about the goings on in The Last Samurai. Without much conviction in the story, I found myself admiring the mountainside, which is not something I normally do.

The Village (2004) * 1/2

The Village Movie Review

Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, Bryce Dallas Howard, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver

It's safe to say now that writer-director M. Night Shyamalan has used up all of the goodwill he had built up with The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable.     His last two films, including this one, have been absolute clunkers.    The Village has a threadbare plot to say the least. It treads dangerously into Blair Witch Project territory with its silliness and simplicity.    I wonder if Shyamalan referred to this film as "Blair Witch meets Signs" when pitching it.   The fact that Blair Witch and Signs are two of the worst movies of recent years isn't good, but my guess would be that the studio simply threw him a pile of money because of his last three hits.

I won't delve too much into the plot to be helpful to those who haven't seen the film and still wish to, even after I do everything in my power to dissuade you from seeing it.   You'll thank me one day.  But I digress,    The Village takes place in circa the late 19th century in what seems to be rural Pennsylvania.   A funeral opens the film and the gravestone of the soon-to-be-buried body reads "died 1897", so you can draw your own conclusions from that.    The village inhabited by about a hundred people is adjacent to ominous-looking woods.     These woods are allegedly inhabited by "Those We Do Not Speak Of.." (this is exactly how they are described by the villagefolk).   Are they monsters, people, or aliens?   That is not known.   But apparently there is a truce between the village and woodspeople in which the villagers stay in the village and the woodspeople stay in the woods.

William Hurt plays the village leader, both spiritual and otherwise. His blind daughter and a young man named Lucious (Phoenix) are in love and wish to be married.   He doesn't say much, so the blind girl really doesn't have much to go on while believing she's in love with the guy.    But soon, a bad thing happens.   Phoenix is stabbed by the jealous village idiot (Brody), who also loves the blind girl. He will die unless someone can enter the forbidden woods and reach "the towns", which have the necessary modern medicines needed.

So the plot is in motion figuratively but certainly not literally.   The Village is as plodding and serious as Signs and thus had me checking my watch often.  I was also rather offput by the dialogue these actors had to utter.   Their sentences seem to contain way too many words.   They speak eight words when three will do, adding lots of prepositions at the end.    Also, if you keep bringing up "Those We Do Not Speak Of" often enough, shouldn't they stop being "Those We Do Not Speak Of?"

I will not be specific about the ending, except I believe it brings about more questions than answers. The original plot was thin to begin with.   Throwing in that ending made me ask whether the whole thing is really worth the trouble.   What do the principal parties have to gain by what they are doing? Why did they do it? What drove them to it?   In many surprise endings, the shocker fills in the blanks and fits within the story.  The one in The Village only creates more blanks to be filled in. 

Kill Bill Volume 2 * * * (2004)

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Uma Thurman, Michael Madsen, David Carradine, Daryl Hannah

When I reviewed the first Kill Bill, I said Tarantino should get out of his own way and not appear to be trying to steal the show from his actors. Kill Bill Volume 1 was simply too ridiculous for its own good. But Kill Bill Volume 2 is a quieter, more introspective film. Yes it has action and lots of butt-kicking, but even in those scenes, Tarantino dials down so his characters take center stage.
It's hard to believe that Volumes 1 and 2 were once one big movie. They are so different in tone and style. Volume 1 overkills on the style, while Volume 2 concentrates on the story of it all.

If you recall, Volume 1 outlines the story of The Bride (Thurman), who is attacked on her wedding day by her boss Bill (Carradine) and his four henchmen (although some are women). She was left for dead and spent four years in a coma. When she awakes, she vows vengeance. The Bride disposed of two of the baddies in the first one. Here, she is up against Bill's brother Budd (Madsen) and the patch-eyed Elle Driver (Hannah). She must destroy them before going after her main target, Bill.

I won't give away any plot secrets here. Heaven knows, I heard enough crap about giving away the plot of The Village, to which I plead innocent. The plot in that movie was so thin that I couldn't help myself. But here, there is a theme of relief vs. regret. How do certain characters feel about their actions and having to live with them? This idea is even stated out loud by Budd as he questions Elle Driver about the possibility of facing The Bride in a showdown. Elle Driver is a wicked monster and incapable of regret, but the same can't be said for Bill.

In the first Kill Bill, David Carradine is heard but not seen, but I commented on how reasonable he sounds for a cold-blooded killer. In Volume 2, that idea is fleshed out. He is seen and looks worn and tired from years of killing and crime. But he is smart and feels things. As played by Carradine, he is thoughtful and full of conflicting emotions about what he did to The Bride. I loved this performance by Carradine and I hope he receives an Oscar nomination for his work here. He evokes a quiet dignity for a character who we didn't think had much of that at all. As a result, the final showdown between he and the Bride is not a showy, chop-socky brawl, but one which suggests a love-hate conflict within the two parties. The ending here is much more satisfying than if Carradine were simply a smart-ass, wisecracking villain who gets his ass handed to him.

When Tarantino allows his characters to develop and surprise us, like in Pulp Fiction, he is very good. When he becomes too enraptured with his style and dialogue to care about his characters, he isn't nearly as successful. (See Jackie Brown, Reservoir Dogs, and Kill Bill Volume 1). Maybe he will stay out of the way completely next time. We can only hope.