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Judge Bill Gibron's Blog

Judge Bill Gibron • Location: Tampa, FL
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Just for One Day
August 17th, 2006 12:15AM

World Trade Center is a movie made up of almosts. It's almost great. It almost falls apart at times. It almost captures the horror and heroism of that day in September of 2001, and it almost makes us believe in the undeniable spirit of the American people. But just like the persistent rumors of conspiracy and inconsistencies, Oliver Stone's dry documdrama just can't shake its aura of ambiguity. At several instances within its padded two hour running time, the story of trapped Port Authority police officers Steve McLaughlin (Nicholas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) gets lost in a sea of uneven family melodrama and occasionally pointless sequences. Granted, we are dealing with a near transcript like screenplay, only occasionally festooned with the typical Tinsel Town humbug. But there is a big difference between telling a story that's inherently interesting vs. interpreting one that is intrinsically dramatic. As a result, World Trade Center bounces between these two imperfect ideals, never quite centering itself in order to transcend its essential limitations.

Frankly, this is a film that has several narrative strikes against it from the very start. We know the outcome already, are almost universally versed in the events of that day, and recognize that most, if not all, of the storyline must take place between a couple of actors buried under a mountain of claustrophobic rubble. Such internal pitfalls take considerable directorial skill to overcome, and thankfully, actual auteur Stone is around to rise to the challenge. His decision to keep the images of 9/11 brief and suggestive (there are no CGI shots of the planes making contact with the towers) adds to our sense of unease as the various police and fire units respond. We are frontline witnesses to uncertainty and terror. This is a key perspective, as it is the foundation for most of the film. In fact, it is safe to say that World Trade Center is one of the few cinematic efforts that wants to accurately recreate the confusion and chaos that derives from unexpected disaster. Naturally, there are good and bad aspects of this decision. On the plus side, it gives the film a raw authenticity that could have very easily been sugarcoated for mainstream consumption. On the down side, it leaves us feeling disconnected to the events occurring onscreen.

At least the acting is uniformly good, with the men far outshining the underwritten women. As McLaughlin, Nicolas Cage has the least showy role here. Required to act with his eyes and face (the rest of him being trapped under tons of debris) he creates a nuanced, scared civil servant who never once backs down from the decision he made. Even as he's dying he's defying any questioning of his commitment. Pena's part is more problematic. It is the flashy turn, filled with emotional highs and pseudo scenery chewing lows. As a result, we get the feeling that Jimeno is a more poorly defined symbol of the 9/11 struggle. He's scared. He's antsy. He rises to the occasion when called upon (keeping Cage engaged so he doesn't fall asleep, perhaps to never wake up) and even tries to lighten things up once in a while. Yet it all seems scattered, like Pena's not sure which approach will work best. As their spouses, Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal have very little to work with. Bello is Cage's disconnected wife, and her scenes with the couple's children lack the spark that such a tragedy should create. Equally odd, Gyllenhaal is all over the map in her interpretation. Some moments she's bubbly, the next she's on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The consequence of all this confusion is that we never establish the clear-eyed goal that both men are striving for. We need to feel the same amount of yearning that they do. We have to identify with the need to reestablish the familial bonds. Again, it almost happens, but doesn't quite get there.

There are also parts here that drag, moments that lack the drama of other, more mesmerizing sequences. The supporting roles, from the soon to be dead policemen to the rescue crew (made up, partially, of the almost unrecognizable Stephen Dorff and Frank Whaley), are nothing more than archetypes, brought in to give us the human heroics required to serve the finale. As our focused Marine determined to help, Michael Shannon is more sinister than Samaritan. For some reason, Stone and screenwriter Andrea Berloff give him arcane, almost gloomy sentiments to espouse, clouding what should be a very brave, very bold individual. Sure, his military training would render him cold in situations of crisis, but humanizing our champions is what cinema is all about. Indeed, in his desire to remain faithful to the storyline and avoid the controversy he's typically associated with, Stone purposefully avoided anything that would even remotely appear to sensationalize, exploit, or distract from the reality of what happened that day. Sadly, it makes for a rather disjointed entertainment. Truth be told, if filmmakers won't take the brazen steps of interpreting the tragedy of 9/11 through their own particular philosophical or creative bent, to Hell with any and all criticism, then it is perhaps too soon for films of this type. Recreating reality only works when the truth is more compelling than fiction (or, in this case, fictionalizing). World Trade Center fits this category…almost.

7 out of 10

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Descent-ing Opinion
August 9th, 2006 1:43AM

I am dead convinced that people have forgotten how to make horror films. Oh sure, they can occasionally come up with halfway decent ideas for said efforts – documentary filmmakers get lost in the woods, groups of teens stumble upon a household of murderous cannibals – but for the most part, there are very few examples of flawless execution. As a matter of fact, there are even fewer examples of outright competency. More times than not, these lackluster efforts come from the homemade movie front – and with good reason. After all, you can't expect individuals with limited budgets and resources to deliver on their usually overextended concepts. But the mainstream monster movie shouldn't suffer from such sloppiness. With adequate funds and the best movie magicians in the business behind them, a commercial horror director should deliver a quasi-quality product almost every time. Sadly, cult fave Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers) doesn't even begin to prevail with his almost unanimously praised follow-up The Descent. For my money, it's one of the most overrated and poorly realized spook shows in a very long time.

Now, I have certain theories about successful onscreen terror, ideas I've accumulated over my four decades of film fandom. They are by no means universal, so feel free to scoff at will. To me, you must have a plausible premise, or characters that compel you (or, in a perfect cinematic world, a combination of both) in order to get "hooked" by a horror film. Many of the genre's most memorable efforts – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Exorcist, Psycho, Halloween – have narrative foundations that you can easily identify with, while delivering people one can sympathize with and root for. Hostel has both of these elements, while the recent revamp of The Hills Have Eyes had more plot potential than personalities. Still, it delivered the shivers a heck of a lot better than this spastic spot of spelunking. The notion of going down into a claustrophobic, unexplored cave system is just not something I could see myself doing. It's the same level of implausibility that occurs when, in a completely clichéd and stupid manner, a character foolishly returns to the scene of a previously known danger. Sadly, this also happens The Descent. Characters who clearly understand the peril around them walk blindly (metaphorically, not literally) into harm's hackneyed way – over and over again.

Not that we care very much about our vixens as victims here. Marshall tends to paint his personal portraits in the broadest, most basic human colors possible. Our lead Sarah, a fragile casualty of a pre-credits car crash, is supposedly suffering from some post-mortem depression. She lost her family in the wreck, and she pops pills to ease her (one assumes) suffering. Still, none of this is ever explained. The friendships appear random and concocted for convenience sake, our uber-egoed villain, the needs a less obvious moniker Juno is all self-righteous rigidity. The rest of the cast comes across as players in a group therapy theater company, with every standard stereotype present from the implied lesbian to the conspiratorial best friend. And then there are the monsters – or the "supposed monsters", if we are to believe some Internet conjecture. Chalk white, blind as their cave cousin bats, and seemingly living on a steady diet of human and/or animal torsos, these wall-walking SOB's aren't so much scary as a narrative contrivance. After all, with dread comes a need to source out the scares. But as symbols of fear, they're really unnecessary. Marshall could have easily made a movie where the feeling of being trapped in a cave leads a group of six high strung women to turn on each other with frightening fatal results. Instead, he borrowed a few beasties from the Italian style of splatter and turned on the creature features.

While much of my reaction to the movie can be pegged on my growing cynicism to the overall cinematic experience, and the dearth of inventive fright flicks in general, I still respond when the situation calls for it. I find Open Water endless fascinating, not so much terrifying as psychologically uncomfortable. The same goes for the updated Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a movie that managed to be both gruesome and gratifying without relying on freak show effects. Even something like Saw II delivers more soul stinging chills than ten minutes of this X-gamer goofiness. But perhaps the most disturbing element of The Descent, at least for me, is how seemingly out of step I am in the critical community. Being the odd man out doesn't really bother me that much. But when I read other reviewers who point to the films "startling originality" and "inventive thrills" I begin to question my own convictions. What did they see that I didn't, and more importantly, WHY didn't I see it? Is the entire Descent experience generational, losing older fans of more well-managed macabre while feeding directly into the slam bang universe of a demographic raised on the '80s VHS idea of fear. Will this film follow the trajectory of another initial "classic", the now more or less forgotten Blair Witch Project? Does this mean that The Descent will have about a decade of viability before becoming rote? Who knows? Interestingly enough however, contemplating such questions ends up being far more engaging than any single sequence in this otherwise subpar scare film.

5 out of 10

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South Breach
August 2nd, 2006 7:54PM

Miami Vice is an expressionist crime drama. Writer/director Michael Mann purposely moves a million light years away from the fashion and artifice of his infamous ‘80s zeitgeist to deliver a movie with many of its details missing. This is not necessarily a bad thing – as a visualist, he is more than capable of allowing his images to paint in the particulars. But when you are working from a premise that involves undercover drug deals, back stabbing middlemen, random white supremacists, and the mingling of personal and professional feelings, little things like never properly introducing the rest of the Vice squadron do come back to haunt you – especially when you are relying on them to bolster much of the last act’s action. Beautiful to look at and difficult to embrace, this is a movie of moments, not of overall narrative force. The brand new versions of Crockett and Tubbs are acceptable – Foxx is all super serious, while Farrell puts on his oiliest wise ass persona. They may be nothing more than icons in a film loaded with such symbolic cues, but we gladly accept their ‘by the book’ bravado and believe them as the ‘70s throwback super cops that they are – nothing more or less.

Once again employing the fascinating film/digital aesthetic that he used in Collateral, Mann’s version of Vice is like Heat without the interesting middle act. That previous look at life on both sides of the law had Al Pacino, Val Kilmer and Robert De Niro to bolster its occasional lapses. Our leads here are flashy fluff compared to that titanic trio. Still, Mann manages to make it work – sort of. The nightclub set up, which is never explained in relationship to the rest of the film, gets us started with an atmospheric bang. Suggesting more than showing, the first few deaths are designed to peak our interest (a pair of legs in a pool of blood, a spray of gore along a busy Broward county highway) while the last 45 minutes offers the kind of suspense ridden double crossing denouement we’ve come to expect from the genre. Even the grue is cranked up a couple of notches as limbs are blown off and heads become riddled with holes as bullets blaze in an expertly helmed firefight. Thankfully, these surrounding elements are strong enough to save the sloppy, unexceptional center. Gong Li, trying out her English (and not always succeeding), is an attractive love interest for Crockett, but she’s not very engaging. We want more than steely business sense and the ability to make cow eyes at decidedly unctuous Farrell. When they’re together onscreen, the result is sluggishness, not sparks.

During these dull interludes, Mann really pours on the visual poetry. There are several sensational sequences where a lone speedboat blazes toward a seemingly endless horizon. We are also entranced by an amazing aerial shot of a gorgeous South American waterfall, which reveals itself as part of a high ranking cartel overlord’s backyard. It’s not difficult to get swept up in the epic elements of Miami Vice, since Mann lingers on them, hoping that they help us understand the vastness of the international drug trade. But this means something has to suffer, and in this case, it’s the characters. There is honestly not a single three dimensional personality in the entire picture. Foxx is so stodgily even-keeled that when a fellow officer is mortally wounded, his sudden concern seems completely out of place. Farrell also turns up the mixed emotion waterworks when he has to make one of those clichéd sacrifices that all lawmen in his cinematic position are required to do. Yet neither scene connects with us. Even with aspects of life and death at play, we are sadly detached from the personal side of this story.

In fact, Miami Vice is much more interesting in its approach to the crime thriller than in its desire to dig deep into the world of illegal drugs. The unbelievable influx of technology – cell phones, GPS, laptops, tracking devices - makes for an initially disorienting experience. When an FBI official asks Crockett how they can discuss such delicate issues over an open, non-secure line, he bluntly blurts back “this is how I got the information, so let’s deal with it. “ Indeed, the ready access to information worldwide makes the undercover element all the more intriguing. With smugglers able to immediately access your (phony) dossier from anywhere on the planet, Crockett and Tubbs always seem moments away from being discovered. Yet even this can’t make the movie a kinetic actioner or a simmering neo-noir. Instead, Michael Mann appears to be retrofitting the routine of cop dramas past into a sci-fi space of rap video level luxury and post-modern machismo. While it may occasionally have you thinking of another South Florida cinematic spree featuring a Cuban exile, a mountain of coke, his sister complex and a mega-weapon known as his “li’l friend”, Miami Vice is no Scarface. It’s more serious, and less sensational. Too bad it’s not as entertaining.

7 out of 10

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CG-Irony
July 31st, 2006 4:47PM

Monster House is not your typical computer generated cartoon. It doesn’t offer cutesy, cuddly anthropomorphic beings voiced by famous celebrities cracking Borscht Belt level pop culture quips. There’s no major moral about believing in yourself or savoring your friendships. There’s only one major action setpiece, and it grows instinctually out of the storyline, not merely tossed in to show off the computing power. The wee ones won’t be clamoring for Chowder or Zee action figures (though a fully articulated Monster House model would be sweet) and only the most seasoned film going youngster will find anything instantly “likeable” about this narrative. Hats off to Executive Producers Stephen Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. They have made the first tween classic, a movie destined to be remembered by audience members a little too old for talking cars and wise cracking woodland creatures, but still unable to enjoy the harsher elements a PG-13 or R film has to offer. For them, this is a Goonies to get lost in, an amiable adventure yarn that has action and atmosphere to burn.

That being said, who was the nimrod over at Sony who decided to make this a SUMMER release? Especially with Pixar pitching its own animated auto extravaganza and Warner’s Ant Bully, Paramount’s Barnyard and their own Open Season all vying for the same demographic dollars. Granted, with DVD sales indicating that children will sit through even the most middling exercise in CGI idiocy, piling on seems profitable. But the fact of the matter is, Monster House deserves better. It is a more fully realized film than most of its bitmap brethren. It has real performance from real actors, not stunt casting for the sake of marquee value. It follows traditional narrative lines while tweaking and twisting them to create an entirely new notion of the family film and it does so via a cinematic style that doesn’t utilize strict cartoony conceits. Besides, this is a film that feels like Fall, utilizing rich autumnal colors and the crackle of fallen leaves to accent its moody Halloween setting. Placing it in the middle of beach and sunburn season is just dumb. One needs that certain snap in the air to get the full effect.

Maybe this is why, instead of a booming box office success, the film is fairing rather poorly in the receipts race. It’s a similar stumbling block that faced Zemeckis’s last effort, the yuletide treat The Polar Express. Thanks to IMAX and the seasonal push, however, that occasionally creepy Christmas Card found its footing. Maybe the same will happen here. But Monster House could also be hampered by something I like to call ‘computerized confusion’. You see, ever since a couple of toys went talky, Hollywood has brainwashed its audiences into thinking that making the inanimate “come to life” is the only legitimate use for CGI. Realism should be avoided in favor of three-dimensional drawings. Want proof? When Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was released back in 2001, everyone balked at the blending of legitimate (if, in the end, rather lame) sci-fi with photo realistic computer rendered animation. Sure the story sucked, and some of the voice work was over the top and obvious, but the actual use of the infinite motherboard possibilities to create a sense of authenticity and texture was superb. It’s the same with Monster House, except that, this time we have a tasty tale of a demonic domicile to go along with all the bit rate bells and whistles.

It’s a shame, really. The audience I saw the film with contained many little children, and they sat mesmerized by the story, the situation, and all the spooky spectacle. Abide the warnings though parents – this is way too intense for the under seven set. I would argue that any responsible guardian should keep the toddlers at home until the next offering of funny furry woodlanders arrive. No, let Monster House be the post-modern Hardy Boys (with a little help from and prim and proper Ms. Drew) it strives for. Let it teach your preteen that there is still some magic left in the standard Cineplex experience, that everything doesn’t have to be micromanaged and marketed to complement a fast food tie-in or a theme park attraction. Monster House deserves to be a milestone moment in the lives of young filmgoers, a creative coming of age where the electronic babysitter gives way to the real appreciation of film as an artform. Leave it to two men who’ve made their careers out of such aesthetic defining moments to put the latest technology to the test - and doing so without relying on the gimmicks that are quickly killing the genre. No matter the time of year, Monster House is a masterful flight of fancy.

8 out of 10

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Talk Talk
July 27th, 2006 11:29PM

The characters in a Kevin Smith movie love to talk. To them, talking is not just a means of casual communication. It’s an artform. It’s a psychological starting point. It’s the purpose for all human interaction and a skill that too few in the populace ever strive to perfect. Yet as a screenwriter, Smith is known for his excellent dialogue and creative conversations. It’s been his trademark – for better and for worse – for his entire career. Thankfully, Clerks II is no different. This joyous jeer-athon, filled with more dirty-word laden depth and instantly quotable moments than the rest of the summer movie selections combined, is a love letter to the unbridled ecstasy in speaking one’s mind. The sentiments may not always be pleasant, or PC, or practical (Transformers vs. Go-Bots???) but the ability to hear them becomes an odd kind of old fashioned movie magic. Instead of being swept away by a visionary set of images, or a complex, clockwork plot, we find ourselves lost in a world of words – and what a glorious gabfest it is.

As someone who went into this film completely unaware of the entire View Askew universe (know of it, and that’s about it) I was shocked at how well Smith’s insular satire worked. A keen observer of people and personalities, there is never a wrong note in either the way he paints a character, or how these three dimensional individuals listen and respond. From old pros (the original counter jockeys Brian “Dante” O’Halloran and Jeff “Randal” Anderson are back) to excellent new editions (Trevor Fehrman’s fantastic Elias, Rosario Dawson’s dynamic Becky), Smith stays true to the originals format of riffs and rants while adding in something we usually don’t get from this filmmaker’s work. Indeed, during several inspired musical montages, Smith uses The Jackson Five’s “ABC”, The Smashing Pumpkins “1979” and Soul Asylum’s “Misery” to make valid points about the lost of enchantment once maturity steps in and demands you grow up. For an artist known for his limited cinematic skills, these showcase moments really elevate this film beyond the dirty joke ideal.

The profaneness will be what many Smith fans expect, and it’s interesting to see how much the social climate has changed in the 12 years since the initial film. Maybe it’s me, but discussions revolving around going ‘ass to mouth’, bestiality (or as the film insists, ‘interspecies erotica’) and oversized ‘woman parts’ just aren’t as shocking as they once were. Smith himself has said that he finds it fascinating that, this time around, his dialogue only merited an R rating. After all, the original Clerks was slammed with an NC-17 for its raunchy and rude content. Call it the continued mainstreaming of pornography, or the industry coming around to Smith’s way of thinking, but there is nothing really immoral about the conversations in Clerks II. Again, they represent the way real people talk to each other. And whether it’s a debate about Star Wars vs. Lord of the Rings or a long involved bit of interpersonal introspection (Dawson and O’Halloran have several sensational scenes together), there is nothing more refreshing than intelligent writing handled by actors perfectly in sync with their scribe.

Apparently, this was the Kevin Smith I was missing. This was the man who millions fawned over while I faked disinterest. This was the filmmaker who used carefully chosen words and phrases to make sense of the generation into which he was born, while I argued he was self-indulgent and inert. Boy, was I wrong. Clerks II easily takes its place as one of the summer’s best, most surprising entertainments, and even tops entries that wanted to blow us away with superheroic deeds and soft soap sentimentality (and now, more than ever, I wish he had been involved in the Superman revamp). In a perfect world, people would see past the blue humor and foul language, the obsession with sex and the exquisite non-sequitors and embrace this filmmaker as the King of Conversations. Few films in recent memory have gotten under my middle-aged skin as effectively as Clerks II. It was one of the few films offered that made the Summer of 2006 tolerable…and memorable.

8 out of 10

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The Power of Miss
July 24th, 2006 6:02PM

A college professor once told me that the key to any successful science fiction or fantasy narrative is a clear and concise set of rules. As a writer, you are in complete control of any alternate universe you create, and have to make sure that you set specific boundaries and limits. Without them, your story will have a tendency to scatter, losing its grip on the false truth you’re forging and crashing, headlong, into the reality in which we truly live. It’s even more perilous when you try to meld the two. Myth doesn’t react well to modernity, and the more you try to push the two together, the more aggressively they will try to stay apart. On it’s surface, the story of a troubled apartment superintendent who discovers a beautiful, baffling creature on his doorstep one evening should make for something compelling and emotional. But instead, it’s an exercise in insularity that never gels into the fascinating fable it thinks it is. It’s a huge problem for the latest release from that twist-ending trademark M. Night Shyamalan. Even with his considerable cinematic skill, Lady in the Water is his most inert movie to date.

It’s clear from the first few moments our otherworldly figure shows up. A porcelain pawn in the director’s desire to meld fairytales with faith, our so-called ‘narf’ is like mankind’s Jiminy Cricket. These sea creatures show up every once in a while to give human’s bumbling moral direction a hand. She needs to connect with certain people, to inspire them to greatness beyond their current state and lead them toward their undeniable fate. She’s therefore a Calvinist catalyst, preaching predetermination while shivering at the thought of the grass-covered wolves that lie in wait to poison her. If we buy the premise – and trust me, it’s a pretty hard sell – then we can accept the rest of the rituals. As our guide, Paul Giamatti (playing the unfortunately named Cleveland Heep) tries his best to instill an aura of magic into what is going on. He obviously has a handle on the conventions involved. But it’s Shyamalan himself that seems to be uncertain as to what those made-up mandates really are. All throughout it’s running time, Lady in the Water tends to make up its rules as it goes along, giving new or tangential powers to elements and individuals out of a sheer need for plotting or cleverness. One moment all hope is lost. A quick trip to our Asians as exposition, and we’re back on track.

A perfect example comes after Story (so our heroine is called) fails to initially unite with her giant eagle guardian. Since this incident occurs within the first half hour of the film, we know there needs to be an alternative method of closure. But said ‘Plan B’ becomes the entire rest of the narrative and never makes a great deal of sense. New ephemeral beings are introduced – the Symbolist, the Guild, a gang of super evil monkeys – and different interpretations are giving to concepts we thought were concrete. This is obviously Shyamalan’s perceived way of keeping us on our toes. It’s also why he has a completely pointless film critic character become the patsy for our usual predictability. The crab, played with complete cynicism by Bob Balaban, thinks he knows it all, unwittingly argues for the purpose of certain individuals that we’ve seen in the film, and then gets his exclamation mark comeuppance in a way that defies his so-called intellect. All groan-inducing jabs to my fellow reviewers aside, Balaban is equally responsible for calling out the audience. It’s one of Shyamalan’s several “dares”. If you don’t buy into his scattershot saga, you are just as dim as this closed off detractor.

From an acting standpoint, there is a great deal here that is good. Shyamalan has been taken to task for casting himself in the substantial supporting role (as a writer who may be the narf’s Earthbound target). Beside the egotistical world-changing implications, he does have a couple of nice scenes where his soft-spoken introspection works. And, as stated before, Giamatti delivers his typical grandness. As a matter of fact, his performance angers us because it seems that all of his efforts are basically going to waste. The biggest disappointment however is Bryce Dallas Howard. Her turn is as colorless as her complexion, and the lack of anything interesting for Story to do really undermines Shyamalan’s mythology. Such a creature should be something other than a good looking doormat for the people she’s supposed to inspire. From a directing standpoint, there are wonderful visual turns and the familiar Shyamalan forewarning with scenes and situations set to pay off later on. Here, though, he’s developed a habit of over the shoulder shots that’s grows increasingly annoying. But it’s the writing that eventually ruins this film. There is probably an engaging story to be told about a race of sentient sea beings desperate to steer mankind into a more soulful, sensible direction. This chaotic cautionary tale needed a far more firm alternative reality in which to work. Without it, it becomes just another preposterous bit of failed folklore.

5.5 out of 10

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Baby Sh*t
July 17th, 2006 3:26PM

Little Man is the worst movie of the summer. In fact, it’s safe to say that it will probably land right up near the top as the worst movie of the YEAR. Bereft of anything closely resembling intelligence or entertainment value, and unbelievably bad at delivering its more than minor elements, this so called comedy from the family Wayans (Marlon and Shawn onscreen, Keenan Ivory behind the camera) feels like nothing more than a tactless grab for cash. In fact, the brothers must believe that all audiences – not just the urban/teen demo they are obviously aiming at – have the combined IQ of a loganberry. This story of an undersized criminal named Calvin and how he ended up playing baby for a weekend (in order to reclaim a diamond he had to ditch and….oh, never mind) is almost indecipherable. As such, you’d have to be brain dead to defend such illogical plotting, one dimensional characterization and aimless middle act meandering supposedly passing itself off as humor.

This is, without a doubt, the most joyless film released by a semi-major studio (Revolution) in recent memory. Nothing about the movie feels fun – not the noxious as rainbow-slicked lunchmeat premise, not the frequently flimsy special effects (something about Marlon as a midget is…well…just off) and definitely not the appalling amateurish acting. Constantly breaking character and playing random ages depending on the scene, our criminal “kid” Calvin is unstuck in slapstick time. Some moments, he’s a toddler. Sometimes, he’s clearly ready for grade school. That everyone is unable to see through his bad baby ruse creates one of Little Man’s several non-suspendable moments of dopey disbelief. If a couple of adults, staring at another adult’s privates, dismiss both his “maturity” and his pubic hair as normal (and let’s not talk about the doctor who gives this dwarf his ‘youngster’ seal of approval), then they deserve all the derision and ridicule that comes their way. Even worse, there is an implication that our ersatz ‘infant” has sex with his adoptive mother. In actuality, it’s a moment that’s MORE repugnant than it sounds.

In fact, there is a creepy undercurrent of child sexualization running all throughout Little Man, staining and soiling its farcical aspects. In a scene that’s supposed to be amusing, our mini-criminal, in full diaper and ‘da-da’ mode, frenches the holy Hell out of a dumb blond bimbo. Everyone’s reaction? Ummm…that’s unusual. No kidding. Then, when Calvin runs into his accomplice at the park (played with all the finesse of a foot cramp by Tracy Morgan), the skittish parents all ask the same question – “Did he try to touch you?” From another molestation mention to the ‘aforementioned morning’ after scene, all this carnal kiddie joking is just disturbing. But the Wayans don’t stop there. They offer their own unique hate take on white wannabes (former In Living Color co-star Kelly Coffield gets the dishonor of doing the stereotypical “Caucasian talking Ebonics” bit) as well as dissing the old and elderly (John Witherspoon is reduced to playing a one note old coot, lacking a single witty remark or rejoinder). In fact, it’s safe to say that this is a motion picture experience forged out of anger – the obvious antagonism of the filmmakers for the viewer, and the eventual reciprocal rage of the crowd.

As with all gimmick-based entertainments, the result is only as good as the gag. Yet Little Man is one of the rare cases where this maxim misses the point. The sight of Marlon Wayans miniaturized interests us for about 30 seconds. We look for the F/X flaws, and try to get lost in the device. Then we wonder if he’ll do anything clever or exciting with this unusual stature circumstance. Well, if you consider hitting people on the head with frying pans and plastic baseball bats witty, if you get all exhilarated watching a 34 year old actor mug shamelessly for the camera while cooing like a stunted spaz, then you’ll probably enjoy this unmitigated mess, and I’m sure the Wayans will spend your hard earned pennies well. Just don’t expect them to give you anything of substance in return. When the audience has to work several times harder than the cast to find any sort of pleasure or plausibility out of a premise, there’s no hope for redemption, or relief. Unless you want to waste 90 minute of your life, or feel the need to subject yourself to the latest example of miserable moviemaking masochism, avoid this horrid little turd of a film. Little Man deserves little respect.

.5 out of 10

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Treasure Trove
July 12th, 2006 9:38AM

There is more of everything in the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie: more spectacle; more exotic locales; more convoluted story contrivances. Anyone who thought the first film was teeming with plot and particulars will find their narrative tolerances tweaked toward overload by this sensational sequel. Between the introduction of two new villains, the addition of a new “quest” and the held-over elements from the first good-natured go round, there’s nary a moment of breathing room in this wonderfully effective popcorn entertainment. Granted, the POTC movies aren’t out to make grand statements about loyalty, the sea, or the shrinking sense of the world. Instead, they merely want to amuse, to provide 150 minutes of escapist fun in their swordplay, slapstick, and sensational special effects. George Lucas and his dire digital space operas be damned – Gore Verbinski and his capable cast of eye candy actors are on course to deliver the landlubber version of what the Star Wars series originally promised it would be.

After the living dead skeletal pirates of the first film, Dead Man’s Chest had its wildly imaginative work cut out for it. After all, those undead outlaws were incredibly inventive and handled with stellar CGI flare. Amazingly enough, the sequel delivers, rendering head horror Davy Jones and his cutthroat band of buccaneers as remarkable combinations of sea creatures and humans. From half-man hammerheads to cutthroats with crustaceans crafted to their faces, the overall look of the movie’s fiends is simply remarkable. Jones himself is a squid-festooned dandy with huge lobster claws and an excess of tentacles that makes Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa look like a minor league monster by comparison. Equally unsettling is Naomie Harris as voodoo priestess Tia Dalma. Eyes accented with harrowing contacts, and smiling through a mouth of vile, blackened teeth, her otherworldly turn is terrific. In fact, all the actors acquit themselves admirably, expanding on their original roles to add subtle shading to what are, basically, creative cartoon characters.

Aside from the spectacle, Johnny Depp deserves a great deal of credit for turning Capt. Jack Sparrow into a fully rounded rascal. In the first film, the accent and demeanor mask a truly conflicted individual. Now, with an entire performance under his belt, Depp loosens up, making Jack a scoundrel as lost in his sea-faring situation as Jones or Barboosa. It will be interesting to see where he takes Sparrow in the final film, tentatively entitled At World’s End. There is so much this incredible actor can do with this dapper delight that every scene becomes a breathless anticipation of something special. And, as always, Depp doesn’t disappoint. In fact, it’s safe to say that this long time industry eccentric has probably found the breakout series that will change the very scope of his future career. Unlike Ewan McGregor, or the horrid Hayden Christensen from Lucas’s lamentable sequels, Depp’s Sparrow will be seen as a stepping stone, not an infamous coffin nail, in his bankable big screen persona. Even as he continues to choose daring, difficult films, newfound fans will support him. Sparrow is that kind of indelible icon.

Additional praise must also go to Gore Verbinski, proving that he has a directorial mantle similar to that of Peter Jackson’s – at least when it comes to handling the multi-faceted epic. Juggling several different storylines at once, Verbinski always seems to find the linking material to keep us engaged and intrigued. He is also becoming an expert at big canvas set piece action. The opening escape from a cannibal island is amazing, and the finale, featuring a huge rotating water wheel and a full fledged onslaught by Davy Jones’ beasties is unbelievable in its scale and effectiveness. There are dozens of equally memorable moments strewn throughout – the arrival of the Flying Dutchman, as well as an equally unbelievable dive into the briny deep – and the computer-generated Kraken instills fear and foreboding with its vividly rendered CGI size. It’s rare today when a movie can make me immediately want to see it again. I’ll be queuing up to Dead Man’s Chest at least one more time before the summer is out. It’s truly one of this otherwise sloppy season’s cinematic highlights.

8 out of 10

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Steel-ing Summer
July 5th, 2006 3:05PM

In the lexicon of comic book movies, it’s not as good as Sam Raimi’s Spidey series and both Burton and Nolan’s Batman can rest comfortably in their place along the cinematic superhero hall of fame. But Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns is good – damn good. It’s just not great. As a matter of fact, it misses greatness by a margin measured in just a few filmic fractions. Yet these flaws are still large enough to occasionally sidetrack what is, for the most part, a faithful fulfillment of the decades long struggle to bring the Man of Steel back to the screen. Like Hulk, which tended to take itself too seriously for its own good, this latest incarnation of the speeding bullet/bird-plane personage repeatedly dances around decent ideas without ever landing smack dab in the center of them. In addition, Bryan Singer still doesn’t impress me as a director with a future outside a certain style of film (more on this in a moment). However, it is safe to say that with this highly entertaining experience, our undeniable icon to truth, justice and the American way is back with a viable vengeance.

Certainly, Singer makes his mistakes. Using the original films as a guide was an idea goofier than bringing dinosaurs back from the dead, and the constant referencing of those mid-70s blockbusters bogs down the narrative. Several times during the film, I found myself wondering what the rumored re-imaginings of the man and his material (Kevin Smith, Brett Ratner, McG, Tim Burton, JJ Abrams) came up with. Certainly something more original than giving Superman a son could have been considered for the reintroduction of this classic comic character. While bringing back Lex Luthor worked out well (Kevin Spacey adds a slimy, sinister edge to the role that Gene Hackman failed to find) and the nods to the first film’s origin story are sensational, Returns often feels like the middle act in an already running series. In fact, Singer and his screenwriters spend so much time on those touchy feely parts of the plot (the whole romantic angle with Lois’s new love interest is unexceptional) that they lose a lot of their movie’s direction and drive. Along with the dumb decision to cast Kate Bosworth as the Pulitzer Prize winning (!?!?) journalist (she is simply out of her league here), the emotional side of Superman slows down the spectacle.

What does work, though, are the reasons that movies are made. The airplane sequence is brilliantly realized, a terrific tour de force for the F/X crews as well as a brazen bright spot in Singer’s otherwise sedentary style. Unlike Spielberg or Jackson, this director seems to slack off the minute the main action scenes are over. The sections where Superman saves Metropolis are superb, as is the final confrontation with Luthor. But all the stuff inside the Daily Planet, all the material between Lois and her lover, just sits there without any strength or cinematic sizzle. They seem like rest stops between set pieces. In addition, Singer needed a stronger editorial hand in shaping this story. We meander into time-consuming tangents quite frequently, left with dangling elements (the whole Pulitzer business, the cannibal dog) that never really pay off. Still, the center is solid with Brandon Routh owning the role of Clark Kent/Superman. Though a questionable choice at first, he is incredibly magnetic onscreen, capable of delivering the many sides of the Man of Steel with grace, genuineness, and more than a little wit. This is indeed a very funny film, with lots of clever repartee between characters. Thankfully, the humor doesn’t overpower the heroics, as we are definitely left wanting more – more Routh, more feats of derring-do, more Superman.

Perhaps this is the best way to judge a blockbuster; determining if there’s material worth a second (or third, or fourth) look. The answer is an emphatic “yes”. The Fortress of Solitude sequence is atmospheric and compelling, while Luthor’s ultimate plan is realized in brilliant bit map authenticity. The CGI is never intrusive, the cityscapes of Metropolis are spectacular and Superman’s flying capabilities come across smoother and more valid than in any other super hero movie. It will be interesting to see where the sequel takes us. Like Burton’s first Batman, there are a lot of obvious safeguards in place here, studio-mandated moments that keep the film feeling frequently hemmed in and overly controlled. Perhaps, if it’s successful enough, Warners will turn Singer loose, letting him deliver a definitive take on the subject of Superman without all the nods to fanboy mandates and test audience tendencies. Ranking right up there with the summer’s other entertainment highlights, Superman Returns is one comic book movie that gets it more or less right.

7.5 out of 10

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In-Complete Control
June 26th, 2006 5:53PM

Click is far from perfect. It’s bifurcated approach to family friendly comedy is confusing to both audience and actors. One moment we are laughing as a dog humps a huge stuffed duck. The next our heartstrings are being tugged and tweaked as lessons about living are paraded out like so many superstar cameos. At the center is the same old story we’ve witnessed ad nauseum from the hackneyed Hollywood dream factory – overworked parent/partner learns that his devotion to career is destroying his idyllic home - and, without giving much away, Click doesn’t stray from the formulaic fallout involved. Instead, it wallows in it, pushing tears and belly laughs like punctuation in the life sentences of these golden oldie proverbs. John Lennon once argued “All You Need is Love”. Click argues that said emotion and a high tech plot gimmick are indeed the answer to the repugnant routine of the rat race.

Still, for all its obvious faults, I found myself completely lost in this genial, quasi-genuine comedy. Sandler and his stellar cast - from the beautiful Kate Beckinsale to the ever quirky Christopher Walken – deliver this combination of fart jokes and dramatic dross with enough poignant force to keep the numerous flaws at bay. Granted, it is easy to pick this movie apart. It is overloaded at the front with farce, saving all of its sap until the end and narrative quandaries creep up frequently (what’s the deal with the O’Doyles? How did a butthead like David Hasselhoff become an architectural big wig?). Yet, the way our star and his Wedding Singer/Waterboy director pal Frank Coraci approach this material, you can’t help but give in to its many manipulations. As Michael Newman, Sandler straddles the growing chasm between his glorified goofball past (Happy Gilmore, Billy Madison) and his more moderated mainstream future (50 First Dates, Punch-Drunk Love). His family is fresh and unforced, with kids who are clever without being cloying, and a spouse who struggles to support her underachieving man.

Indeed, without the novelty of the “universal remote” this far more Sandler-esque response to Spanglish could actually play on its own. The opening act, with its near-novel take on family and home have a wonderful rhythm and sincerity. Henry Winkler and Julie Kavner make an excellent pair of aging parents and Jennifer Coolidge’s maneater Janine is an anarchic archetype. But once we get to the techno-tenets of the film, we feel the tone subtlety shifting. Gone are the obvious jokes and slapstick riffs. In their place are pokes at DVD, business acumen, and the concept at time. As Sandler masters his new convenience device, the ways in which he uses it make some manner of sense. Indeed, we buy into the entire remote ruse since it comes with an inherent curiosity. We want to see where the next click takes him. The sentimental last act will be the toughest for the comic’s fans to fully fathom. It’s not because of the depth Click strives for, but the obvious attempts at interpersonal exploitation. While the movie earned its ending’s emotionalism (at least in my opinion), there will be those who think their favorite funnyman has seriously sold out for some syrupy sentimentality.

Indeed, Click is sappy and saccharine, but it’s the good kind of cleansing, cathartic corniness. It reminds us that movies can, occasionally, hit upon the proper combination of entertainment and emotion and play both to a single, satisfying draw. This is not the funniest film Sandler has made (for me, The Waterboy wins that distinction) nor will it be the most maudlin of his overall career (remember, next up is a 9/11 drama). In fact, those critics who’ve called this a midpoint in his shift from stooge to seriousness have more or less hit the narrative nail right on the head. It was a major risk for this popular performer to try and combine dopiness with drama, and it doesn’t always work. But when it does, Click surpasses most of the baffling bullcrap being passed off as blockbuster summer cinema this year. It’s sweet, serious, stupid, strange and just a little sloppy. But at its core is a real desire to comment on the intrinsic value of family. And for this antisocial cynic, the message came across loud and tear…I mean, clear.

7 out of 10

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