by Tim Van Schmidt
Shaun of the Dead ***
A bumbler and his lowlife friend come into their own when London is beset by an infestation of zombies. It’s a tongue-in-cheek comedy as much about suburban living, attitudes and relationships as about the living dead.
Directed by Edgar Wright…2004…99 min…featuring Simon Pegg, Kate Ashfield, Nick Frost, Lucy Davis, Dylan Moran
50 First Dates **
A VERY light romantic comedy. The plot for “50 First Dates” is fairly simple- Adam Sandler plays Henry, an island Casanova who falls for Lucy, played by Drew Barrymore, a perky blonde who has lost her short-term memory due to a car crash. Henry is at first intrigued by wooing and winning the same woman day after day, but then he joins Lucy’s father and brother in an effort to help Lucy cope with her malady and to live a more normal life. The plot is certainly wide enough to allow for plenty of comic action. Henry is a veterinarian at a water park and the work scenes offer some comedy unrelated to his relationship with Lucy. But mostly the movie revolves around Henry’s ham-handed approach to getting close to Lucy, even if he has to start over every day. The jokes themselves are often crude, Sandler’s mush-mouthed delivery often masking their darker intent. The movie is populated with plenty of colorful side characters, featuring co-stars such as Sean Astin, Dan Aykroyd and Rob Schneider, but in all a lot of this is just thin air. (1 hour, 39 minutes, Columbia 2004.)
Million Dollar Baby ****
An intense drama centered around professional boxing. This is another great film from director and star Clint Eastwood that digs into the shadows of the human heart. This time, the story follows the relationship between Frankie, an old wizened trainer, and Maggie, a scrappy thirty-something woman who is determined to succeed as a female boxer. At first, Frankie resists, but finally he becomes devoted to Maggie and the pair travel the world until tragedy strikes. What befalls Maggie is what tunes the viewer into what this fine film is all about. Though “Million Dollar Baby” is set in the world of boxing, what becomes fascinating is not the career highlights, but the details of the closeness that arises between Frankie and Maggie. The result is true love- not romantic love, but simple deep caring.
To underscore the theme of relationships in “Million Dollar Baby,” is an excellent portrayal of the relationship between Frankie and Scrap, an ex-boxer played by Morgan Freeman who helps Frankie run his gym- the Hit Pit. In their moments together on the screen, Eastwood and Freeman find plenty of nuance in their lines- from humorous to dead serious- and the two veteran actors shine. But then also throw in the relationship between Scrap and a crazy young boxer in the gym, and the relationship between Maggie and her white trash family and the film goes way beyond a “boxing movie” label. The boxing, though a gritty and even exciting element to the film, is really a sideshow to the drama of human hearts that unfolds. Of special note in “Million Dollar Baby” is the use of shadows and light in the photography. There is a scene where Scrap talks with Frankie in the darkness of the gym and he stands in just a thin swath of light that illuminates only a part of his craggy face and it typifies the powerful and purposeful scene set-ups that fill the film. Though dark and brooding, “Million Dollar Baby” offers a rugged inspiration- the world is full of pain and suffering and it is up to each person to step up and deal with it the best they can. With luck and effort, you might even get to taste some of the fruits of life before it’s time to check out.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban ***
The third installment of the Harry Potter series. This light romp continues the story of Harry, who is in danger from an escaped convict named Sirius Black, accused of being responsible for the death of Harry’s parents. Harry’s school, the magical Hogwarts, is on high alert and finally a confrontation between wizards young and old reveals the truth.
Of course, this production features the reoccurring elements of the first two Potter adventures, including the return of Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, Rupert Grint as Ron and Emma Watson as Herione. These young actors have obviously matured since the first film, and one pivotal scene reveals just how much the characters have matured. In a fit of rage, Harry makes his wicked aunt blow up into a balloon and float away into the London night sky. The action is surprising because despite the tongue-lashing Harry gets from the horrible woman, does that mean he should unleash his personal power to get even?
Though the actual plot of this adventure is kind of thin- Harry is in danger, confronts it, discovers the truth and demonstrates his growing wizardry- there is plenty else going on. Throw in the some monsters, some ghosts, talking paintings, magic wands and flying broomsticks, glimpses of staff and teachers who have all become familiar, as well as plenty of deference to Harry’s powerful parents, and you have what passes for another journey in Harry Potter’s crazy world. New this time is a little time travel device and creatures called Dementers, who guard the prison Black escaped from and who suck good experience from a victim, leaving only the bad. Also there’s a cool magic map. The settings are all highly stylized- from the tall halls of the Hogwarts castle to the big trees in the forest- and at times look like an adventure ride at an amusement park. Stars such as Maggie Smith, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman and Gary Oldman appear, but this is all gape-mouthed kid’s play. (2 hours, 22 minutes, Warner Brothers 2004.)
Finding Neverland ***
A luscious account of the writing of “Peter Pan.” Although set in a prim and proper English world, this story has as much to do with pain and suffering as it does the fantastical Neverland.
Playwright James Barry is having a rough time- his recent play was a flop and his relationship with his wife is rapidly deteriorating. He responds by retreating into a fantasy world he creates with four young brothers he meets in the park. The boys have recently lost their father and Barry becomes their “Uncle Jim,” acting out fantasy scenarios with them about pirates and Old West gunfights. The boys willingly play and find solace in the unexpected friendship.
As Barry gets more and more comfortable with the boys and their worlds of play, he neglects his marriage, until finally, his wife leaves him. To add to the mix is the element that Barry’s young friends are also losing their mother, who he has also grown fond of. Her mother, who has moved in with the young family to help, is wary of Barry’s intentions and his friends warn him about the gossip his relationship has caused. This is the backdrop that inspires Barry to write “Peter Pan.”
There are several moments of brilliance in the film. Most of these occur when the lines between reality and fantasy get blurred. At one point Barry (played by a thin, controlled and dapper Johnny Depp) is looking out at a theater audience and imagines them sitting in the pouring rain. At another moment, Barry and his wife enter their separate bedroom doors- her door simply opens to a room, his opens to a green landscape. Barry imagines the crooked hardware of Captain Hook when watching the boys’ grandmother poke and scold one of them.
The most touching and fantastic scene of the movie, however, comes when Barry arranges for the boys’ mother to experience his play in the family living room and to “find Neverland” in the back garden of their home- using actors and props from the theater production. The response of the stern grandmother- with hopeful and fervent clapping when Peter asks the audience to believe in fairies- tells us what to feel- we want so much for Neverland to exist. Despite the deaths, the struggle, there is some part of us that yearns for another, simpler and more magical world.
Fine mature support roles by Julie Christie, as the grandmother, and Dustin Hoffman, as the theater owner, helps add to the rich texture of the film. Hoffman, in fact, delivers a key line- about how “the critics” have ruined the theater by making it a serious endeavor. The seriousness is exactly what Barry tries to take on when he reserves 25 scattered seats throughout the theater, then fills them with orphaned children. The children remind the stuffed shirts in the audience to open their hearts up a little and experience childlike joy and wonder.
Finally, it is the death of the boys’ mother that makes Barry grow up. Following the funeral, the grandmother confronts Barry about what his intentions are towards the boys and that partial measures are not good enough. Barry decides to commit to the boys, to become their guardian first, then their playmate. The fantasy world he created in his play could not stop reality from taking its due. But it did offer some joy, perspective, comfort and hope. What more can art do?
Maria Full of Grace ***
A harrowing look into the life of a drug-snuggling “mule” from Colombia. This movie does not overindulge the dramatic elements of the story with excess violence or swelling music. Instead, the story of 17-year-old Maria is told from a realistic standpoint. The film is full of the landscapes and cityscapes of both Colombia and New York City and shows the details of the everyday life that dissatisfies her so much- from the tenuous poverty of her family to the disrespect of the boss at her job striping thorns off of roses.
But then the details of her “job” as a drug smuggler become even more frightening- from the long scenes of Maria swallowing the drug pellets, to the threats made against her family once she has ingested them. The story takes a deadly turn when one of the other drug mules gets sick and the hoodlums in New York who are in charge of retrieving the drugs from the mules cut her open and discard the body. The horror reaches deep into Maria’s soul and she makes a desperate attempt to make things right.
Despite the nightmare her drug mule experience becomes, Maria, played by Catalina Sandino Moreno, grabs the opportunity to stay in the States with her unborn baby. This indicates just how serious this character is about finding a new life- deadly serious. But still, Maria retains an aura of innocence that allows a feeling of hope for the future. Maria’s luck is strong- she doesn’t get arrested by customs agents because they can’t x-ray a pregnant woman and the hoodlums in New York decide to give her the money she “earned” despite the fact that she ran with the drugs when she discovered what had happened to her acquaintance. This is an anti-drug movie that speaks to the innocence that provides willing “mules” and how the underworld takes advantage of them. It also speaks to the elements of chance that makes everything a risk.
A tough female cop starts losing her boyfriends to a serial killer. Everybody is a suspect in her peer group, including herself.
Directed by Philip Kaufman…2004…97 min…featuring Ashley Judd, Samuel L. Jackson, Andy Garcia, David Strathairn, Mark Pellegrino, Titus Welliver.
The Door in the Floor ****
A disturbing, dark drama based on a true story. 1950s writer Ted Cole, played with some whimsy by Jeff Bridges, hires a young assistant for the summer- a young would-be writer played by Jon Foster, who begins with high hopes that his experience will be inspiring. Instead, the young man is drawn into the web of sadness and mental disease caused by the death of Ted’s teenage sons. Ted’s wife, Marion, is attractive but distantly cold, and is certainly not right- she slips off into catatonia at the mention of the dead boys. Kim Basinger plays Marion with a stony edge. She and the young assistant engage in an affair that ends up finally breaking up Ted and Marion’s marriage. All the while, the couple’s youngest child, Ruth (Elle Fanning,) holds onto her own sanity by continually visiting photographs of the dead teens and retelling their stories.
At times, this movie approaches a farce, but the simmering underlying current here is painful and negative. No one seems to be really satisfied in the end. Ted’s answer is to plow ahead with a new project, leaving whatever wreckage he causes behind. The scenes between Basinger and Foster are frankly sexual without giving a hint of warmth. Bridges labors to keep his character balanced between being a wise and manipulative man to a lusty predator. Mixed in is an excellent reading by Bridges of Cole’s children’s book “The Door in the Floor,” accompanied by a slide show of some ponderous black and white drawings. That Cole takes chaos and heartbreak and crystallizes it into a relatively small set of words, simple yet direct reflects the writer’s genius. Some of the plot detailing is shown, rather than verbally explained, and the complicated emotions of the characters are sometimes hidden- just like real life. (1 hr. 51 min., Focus, 2004)
The Woodsman ****
12 years in prison, Walter- Kevin Bacon…lumberyard…Vickie- Kyra Sedgwick…Benjamin Bratt, Mos Def, David Alan Grier…Sony…1 hr 27 min 2004
Ocean’s Twelve **
Sequel to 2001 hit Ocean’s Eleven…Danny Ocean- George Clooney…Julia Roberts….Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Casey Affleck, Don Cheadle…three heists in Rome, Paris, Amsterdam…Catherine Zeta-Jones…Andy Garcia as casino owner Terry Benedict…Steven Soderbergh directs…Warner Brothers 2004 2 hr. 5 min.
What the Bleep Do We Know!? ****
Neurological process…Amanda (Marlee Matlin) photog…Elaine Hendrix, John Ross Bowie, Armin Shimerman…new perception people, “things”…1 hr. 30 min. 2004
Vera Drake ***
Imelda Staunton…induce miscarriages for unwanted pregnancies…illegal in 1950s England…2 hr. 5 min. New Line 2004
Intimate Strangers ***
Anna (Sandrine Bonnaire)…Wiliam (Fabrice Luchini…direct Patrice Leconte…Paramount 1 hr 44 min 2004
Noi (Noi Albinoi) ***
Noi- Tomas Lemarquis…17…Northern Iceland….arrival of iris- Elin Hansdottir…plans getaway…last, dim-witted failure…Palm 2004…1 hr. 33 min.
After the Sunset **
Max Burdett- Pierce Brosnan….Lola- Salma Hayek…FBI Stan Lloyd- Woody Harrelson…New Line 2004…1 hr. 31 min.
The Flight of the Phoenix ***
C-119 cargo plane full of oil workers…Mongolia’s Gobi desert…sandstorm…Frank Towns (Dennis Quaid)…Giovanni Ribisi, Miranda Otto, Hugh Laurie…remake 1960s film that starred James Stewart as Towns…20th Century Fox…1 hr. 53 min. 2004
Jamie Fox…family in Albany, Georgia…contracted glaucoma at age 6…racism…romantic letdowns, heroin…directed by Taylor Hackford…Universal 2004 2 hr. 32 min.
The Manchurian Candidate
remake of 1962 political thriller…Capt. Bennett Marco- Denzel Washington…Sgt Raymond Shaw- Live Schreiber…first Persian Gulf War…ten years later, Meryl Streep…Paramount 2004 2 hr. 10 min.
Jude Law…Michael Caine (won Oscar)…1 hr. 45 min. Paramount 2004
Silver City ***
Dicky Pilanger (Chris Cooper)…journalist Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfus)…gumshoe (Danny Huston)…2 hr. 7 min. Columbia Tristar 2004…Tim Roth…Darryl Hannah…a film by John Sayles
Friday Night Lights ***
Director Peter Berg challenges viewers in this production based on the book by H.G. Bissinger with a lot more than a gritty story in “Friday Night Lights.” First of all, the movie is shot throughout with special effect angles and motion. It has a hand held, old time film feel that jumps and moves around the action haphazardly and randomly. To underscore the unconventional filming style is a rough-edged soundtrack heavy on the metal.
Now add in the story of Odessa, Texas football coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) and his quest for football perfection with a team of all-too human players. The problems here do not necessarily come from Gaines and his coaching staff- although they do not seem to be very pleasant people when training football players. The troubles come from the outside- with overzealous boosters, drunk and greedy parents, community well-wishers and fans whose attitudes swing with the breeze. Interestingly, this football film is about the Odessa team that competed the year BEFORE the school won their championship.
This makes the film not about the result, but the process and what it does to the participants. It also leaves a question- when their careers are over, are high school athletes being denied a future, or are they free?
“Friday Night Lights” is an unusual and refreshing sports movie because of its unflinching, hard as nails portrayal of Texas high school football. Though the story may be familiar within the sports genre- a team of underdogs overcome the odds to reach the State finals- this one does not gloss over the flawed lives a lot of the players live. They taste glory but also the lack of it and the characters seem scared, humbled, determined- and realistic. (DVD, 1 hr. 58 min., Universal 2004.)
Directed by Peter Berg…2004…118 min…featuring Billy Bob Thornton, Jay Hernandez, Derek Luke, Lucas Black, Garrett Hedlund, Lee Jackson, Lee Thompson Young, Tim McGraw, Grover Coulson, Connie Britton, Connie Cooper.
After seeing a dog like “Righteous Kill” (see below) even a low-grade thriller/gore-fest like “Frankenfish” looks good. It’s a monster movie set in a swamp- giant killer fish terrorizing a small community of houseboat dwellers. And it’s the kind of movie where just about every character you meet gets killed in some gruesome way or another. That’s part of the fun- you can’t wait to see how each one meets their maker. Some of the characters you’re sympathetic to- like the young female biologist who gets her head blown off by an accident- and some of the characters you want to kill yourself- like the whiney boyfriend who ends up at the bottom of a dogpile of baby flesheaters- but all of them are potential fish food. In a way, it’s just like real life- nobody gets out alive except the very lucky and their luck can’t last for long.
Directed by Mark AZ Dippe…2004…84 min…featuring Tory Kittles, KD Aubert, China Chow.
Don’t Move ***
A surgeon’s daughter with severe head trauma is brought into the hospital where he works. As he nervously waits for dangerous surgery to be performed by a colleague, the surgeon mulls over the past- including a longtime affair. While “Don’t Move” ultimately seems to be romantic in nature, it’s hard to get behind a passionate relationship that begins with a rape.
Directed by Sergio Castellitto…2004…125 min…featuring Penelope Cruz, Sergio Castellitto, Claudia Gerini.
An uplifting sports movie covering the 1980 United States Olympic hockey team that won the gold medal by beating the strong favorites from Russia.
The movie is a lot about coach Herb Brooks, played by Kurt Russell. He is a demanding and unrelenting coach, pushing his team harder when even his assistants think they’ve had enough. But this is a case of tough love. The coach is never satisfied because he personally knows how hard it is to compete at the international level- he was a player too. This kind of dogged intensity is misunderstood by everyone around him- until the team starts winning, that is.
The hockey player characters are less developed, which is understandable considering how many of them there are. However, some details of their lives and personalities are revealed- just enough to give them shape for the production.
Above and beyond the characters and the storyline, however, is another whole layer that works throughout the movie. That is, the element of historical fact. From the very beginning of “Miracle,” bits of newscasts help define the social and political climate of the time- the Cold War is still very real and gas shortages are creating ridiculously long lines at the pumps. There’re even a few inspiring snippets of speeches made by then-President Carter. This stuff heavily underscores the pressure the hockey team feels as they reach the Olympics- it’s not just about playing top shelf hockey, but also about lifting up a whole country’s spirits.
The conclusion is well-known- a stunning victory for the Americans. Even so, this movie builds the tension so successfully that it truly does create a rush of satisfaction in the climax.
Directed by Gavin O’Connor…2004…135 min…Kurt Russell (as Herb Brooks,) Patricia Clarkson, Noah Emmerich, Kenneth Welsh, Eddie Cahill, Patrick O’Brien Demsey.
A light romantic comedy about two friends touring the California wine country. The two are Miles and Jack, ex-college roommates, and they decide to tour California’s wineries the week before Jack gets married. Miles is a sad sack divorcee who is a failed writer and a wine expert. He knows how to look at wine, how to taste it and how to talk about it. Jack is a modestly successful actor whose sexual appetites have never grown up. Jack tells Miles that his goal during their trip is to get Miles “laid” when really Jack is the one who accomplishes the mission- twice. He does so with childish deception and a lack of general integrity. Miles is also interested in a waitress he is acquainted with from previous trips to the area, but is still too obsessive about his own failures to approach her with confidence.
The “plot” in this film is flimsy at best and the constant depression of the character Miles is trying. What makes this film interesting is the framework that is constructed around the story. That is, scenes of California wineries and landscapes. The film itself is richly colorful and even somewhat educational about wine. The highway scenes are actually gorgeous at times and make me miss rolling down California roads next to the shining ocean or the golden hills. Anchoring the production to real locations- and not hiding it- goes a long way in making this story somewhat believable.
Only one scene in the film really speaks to what all the wine references are about. Miles is conversing on a porch with Maya, his waitress love interest, when the woman becomes wistfully poetic about what it is she feels when she tastes wine. It is a beautiful moment and actually exhibits some “soul,” something the rest of the film ignores.
The story of the adventures of Jack and Miles is mildly amusing, but once the character’s personalities have been revealed, there is little mystery where this film can go. Added to this is the question as to whether the viewer really likes either of the characters- if not then why watch them? I didn’t like Jack because he is a jerk. I didn’t like Miles because he is weak and self-absorbed. For me, that only left the footage of the wine country. It makes me want to tour the wineries myself- or at least go get a bottle of wine to enjoy- but I’m not ever interested in hearing about Jack and Miles again.
Chronicles of Riddick ***
Badman Riddick returns and he’s more powerful, more heroic than ever. It’s never his fight, but he never backs down from it. The race against the burning rays of the sun is intense.
Directed by David Twohy…2004…119 min…featuring Vin Diesel, Colm Feore, Thandie Newton, Judi Dench, Karl Urban, Alexa Davalos, Linus Roache, Keith David.
Dawn of the Dead
The cast of characters stuck in the shopping mall is expanded in this remake- that gives more opportunity to know the people who are going to get killed horribly and eaten. It also comments on how a variety of people would react to an extreme crisis situation.
Directed by Zach Snyder…2004…101 min…featuring Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Jake Weber, Mekhi Phifer, Ty Burrell, Michael Kelly.
The Passion of the Christ ***
This movie is hard to judge initially because the story is so obviously important. No matter what you believe about religion and spirit, the events depicted in “The Passion of the Christ” have mightily affected the history of the world- and will for centuries to come.
The focus here, however, is not necessarily on the ideas that were ripping apart the religious structures of the time. Instead, the focus is on the constant torture of Jesus before his death. From the moment he is arrested to the moment he finally expires, Jesus is beaten, kicked, whipped, scourged, pushed and generally knocked around every step of the way. That makes this movie a horrible, bloody mess.
I can believe that viewers are meant to be repulsed by the events that unfold and once things get going following Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, this movie certainly accomplishes that. Viewing this movie produces a dull kind of nausea and is a severe beating to the psyche.
Can I ask this question? Is it possible that the martyrdom of Jesus has been over exaggerated in this production? This is not to question the suffering that Jesus experienced, but it’s hard to imagine any person being able to survive all of the abuse depicted in this movie without actually dying or at least being unconscious from the pure, terrible shock.
One particular sequence was telling. As Jesus is being scourged by leering, laughing torturers, his mother Mary departs the scene. The camera follows her, but the sound of the torture remains prominent. The whippings, according to the soundtrack, are coming fast and furious. I question whether a man would still have any skin left on his body with so many blows from the flesh-peeling whips.
That goes for all the blows that are dealt to Jesus in every scene. Jam the crown of thorns onto his head, make him carry this heavy cross and on and on, it just gets worse and worse. Can a man really bleed so much, have so much skin raked from his body and still live? The historical events tell what happened, but the incredible battery going on here just doesn’t seem possible in reality. That suggests a lot of this movie exists for shock value.
Directed by Mel Gibson…2004…127 min…featuring Jim Caviezel (as Jesus), Monica Bellucci (as Magdalen), Maia Morgenstern (as Mary), Francesco De Vito (as Peter), Luca Lionello (as Judas), Hristo Shopov (as Pilate), Claudia Gerini, Mattia Sbragia.
Meet the Fockers ***
Continuing the “Meet the Parents” franchise with the tomfoolery amped up from every direction.
Here, Dustin Hoffman squares off as the polar opposite of Robert DeNiro’s uptight CIA Dad-in-law for loveable bumpkin Ben Stiller. Hoffman is loud, boisterous and totally without personal boundaries, everything that makes the other guy’s skin crawl.
Throw in a super-sexy- in a very mature way, that is- Barbra Streisand against Blythe Danner’s friendly but repressed Mom-in-law character- and you have plenty of opportunity for rude and crude jokes, many of which are embarrassingly tasteless. And that certainly seems to be the point- how many different ways can your parents embarrass you?
The part I personally questioned most was including a child in the cast that is made to say the word “asshole” numerous times. It was even funny, but is this a good thing to be putting into the mouth of a very young actor?
Directed by Jay Roach…2004…115 min…featuring Ben Stiller, Robert De Niro, Blythe Danner, Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand, Teri Polo, Owen Wilson, Shelley Berman.
Post Impact **
2004…95 min…featuring Dean Cain, Bettina Zimmerman, Joanna Clark, Nigel Bennett, John Keogh, Cheyenne Rushing, Hanns Zischler, Dulcie Smart, Adrienne McQueen, Mike Carr.
Dracula 3000 **
Directed by Darrell Roodt…2004…86 min…featuring Casper Van Dien, Erika Eleniak, Coolio, Langley Kirkwood, Grant Swanby, Tommy “Tiny” Lister, Udo Kier.
Directed by Shane Carruth…2004…77 min…featuring Shane Carruth, David Sullivan, Casey Gooden.