Mandel Maven's Nest: Sci-Fi/Supernatural/Apocalyptic and Fantasy Flicks from a Distaff POV

[R]ecently, [Tom] Rothman and [Jim] Gianopulos [Fox's co-chairmen] were flummoxed over whether Rogue, a character in X Men [and X2: X Men United] should give her beau a passionate kiss at the movie's end or simply hold his hand. The two executives screened the movie for their daughters as well as the studio's female marketing executives, and the hand holding prevailed. ‘The kissing was all about sex, and we didn't want that,’ said Mr. Gianopulos, grimacing. from Fox's Own Superheroes: A Daring Duo at the Studio by Laura M. Holson, The New York Times, June 12, 2006

Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews and Commentaries

My reviews have appeared on: Film-Forward; FF2 Media; Lilith, FilmFestivalTraveler; and, Alliance of Women Film Journalists and for Jewish film festivals. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.



The Weekend (at 2024 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2024)

I.S.S. (at 2023 Tribeca Film Festival) (1/24/2024)

Thaw (short at 2023 Tribeca Film Festival) (7/1/2023)

Ad Astra (9/21/2019)

The Slows (short) (preview at 2018 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) High Life (preview and FF2 summary at 2018 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (10/5/2018 and 6/21/2019)

Laboratory Conditions (short) (preview at 2018 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/15/2018)

The Dark (preview at 2018 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/11/2018)

Cargo (preview at 2018 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/11/2018)

General Magic (preview at 2018 Tribeca Film Festival) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman) (5/3/2018)

The Night Eats The World (La Nuit A Dévoré Le Monde) (preview at 2018 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/2/2018)

Marjorie Prime (edited) Plus:
Even the family’s recall of different dogs with the same name causes friction because one was more the brother’s pet. (This discussion adds a more fraught flavor to Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold’s “I Remember It Well” interchanges in Gigi.)
While husband (Robbins) and wife (Davis) keep flashing back to an as-if-you-were-there panorama exhibit of Versailles, they react differently to living in this stasis. Jon drinks more booze, then eventually provides his wife with an AI of her mother. (Lois Smith’s changes of affect are marvelous.) With this placid, non-criticizing version of her mother, the somewhat neurotic Tess still can’t achieve the satisfactory confrontation with the past she pursues.
The AI’s bring out the worst in Tess, to disastrous results for her. But Jon seems to even prefer them, as he thinks he controls their learning, and is proud that he gets to introduce his granddaughter to this version of her namesake. (8/18/2017)

- Director Michael Almereyda and star Lois Smith at Museum of Modern Art in the Q & A after preview of MARJORIE PRIME in the “Future Imperfect: The Uncanny In Science Fiction” series.

The Farthest (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival (4/17/2017)

This Bogeyman/Inside the Inside (L’en-Dedans/Untitled) (seen in On Resistance: International Avant-Garde Films & Videos 2017 First Look Festival at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/4/2017)

Animals Under Anaesthesia: Speculations on the Dreamlife of Beasts (short) (seen in 2017 First Look Festival at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/4/2017)

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (12/13/2016)
Star Wars: prequels/sequels/series

History’s Future (seen in 2016 Panorama Europe at Museum of the Moving Image) (5/23/2016)

Reality + (short) (seen at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/2/2016)

Always Shine (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/28/2016)

High-Rise (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/5/2016)

Color Correction (seen in 2016 First Look at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/16/2016)

Spectrum Reverse Spectrum (seen in 2016 First Look at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/16/2016)

Crystal World (seen in 2016 First Look at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/16/2016)

The Rover (6/20/2014)

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (previewed at 2014 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (4/5/2014)

Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World (6/22/2012)

Safety Not Guaranteed (6/8/2012)

Valhalla Rising (7/12/2010)

Un lac (briefly reviewed at 2010 Film Comment Selects of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (2/19/2010)

Nucingen House (La maison Nucingen) (briefly reviewed at 2010 Film Comment Selects of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (2/19/2010)

Home (11/27/2009) (also briefly reviewed at 2009 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/27/2009)

Cold Souls (briefly reviewed at 2009 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/27/2009)

$9.99 (also briefly reviewed at 2009 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (So, nu: my commentary on the missing Jewish women) (6/19/2009)

Iron Island (Jazireh ahani) vividly works on at least three levels.
Opening with a prayer, the premise itself is visually arresting and the story is simple but imaginative. Settled on an abandoned oil freighter off the coast of an unnamed Middle East peninsula, a rag tag community of squatters is ruled by a wheeling-dealing landlord, a benevolent, Messianic dictator of a captain, like out of a Werner Herzog film, controlling a limited barter economy with the outside world. The huge hulking ship in the bright blue sea is eye-popping, but it even feels like writer/director Mohammad Rasoulof is just pointing his camera at a documentary of how traditional families adapt to such a physical and economic environment while retaining their social structure with its rigid gender and age stratification.
I equally believed, on the one hand, this could be a post-apocalyptic society as in the Mad Max movies or Waterworld, the new Battlestar Galactica or even Land of the Dead or, on the other, that it could even have been based on a true story, as much as Nobody Knows (Dare mo shiranai) was based on a real incident in Japan of abandoned children.
But it works equally well visually, emotionally and intellectually as a brilliant allegory, not necessarily of Iran but of any traditional, isolated society with a rotting infrastructure, selling off its resources and émigrés to global capitalism and living off the promises and lies of its paternalistic leaders.
Working under the captain's watchful eye, the frustrated school teacher, a Cassandra-like scientist, uses the Islamic madrassas style of repetitive memorization. But with only old newspapers about a mysterious war and enemy as texts, the students are required to repeat truisms about the glories of living on the sea. Unfortunately, the English subtitles do not translate what is on the black board so some subtleties are doubtless lost.
Just as any society has channeled restless adolescent boys into armies, the "Captain" (a marvelously oily and charismatic Ali Nassirian) organizes the boys on board into teams of coordinated manual labor to salvage resources on the ship that have the breathtaking look of Nanook of the North teams ritualistically pulling together for a common goal and their choreography is a wonder. Even so, they still keep trying to get snatches of contact to the outside world with satellite TV and radio.
But we get caught up on in the story of one of these adolescents, his assistant, a lovelorn orphan (played by Hossein Farzi-Zadeh who also movingly played a similar young man in Beautiful City (Shah-re ziba)), who stands up to him, recalling Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, or a more cerebral Star Wars, with an even more dramatically wrenching rebellion. How young love finds an outlet even through elaborate burhkas is a touching tribute to the universality of the human spirit. The audience held their breaths as to who would win the battle of wits and endurance.
Women too are ground under in this patriarchal society, with physical and labor restrictions and barely puberty arranged marriages around issues of honor. A lack of health care particularly affects the constantly pregnant, child-caring women.
The premise doesn't make 100% practical sense and the ending is so ambiguous that the guy next to me optimistically thought it was happy for all, while I was cynically dismayed. But the images are unforgettable. (4/11/2006)

Since the almost 60 years since George Orwell's vision of 1984 we were due for an updated re-imagining of fascism and V for Vendetta comes close.
While it borrows far too much old-fashioned Nazi and Big Brother iconography and methodology for a paranoid future where disease has crippled the first world and chaos has brought in an ostensibly fundamentalist Christian totalitarian regime over Britain, the flashy production and sound design and snazzy editing mostly keeps us from realizing this is less about political revolution and more about personal vengeance, as if it's an addition to Chan-wook Park's trilogy (Oldboy etc.), which also borrowed heavily from The Count of Monte Cristo or like the anti-homophobe revengeful serial killer in the TV mini-series Epitafios (Epitaphs).
All of the power mongers, unfortunately, are seen more for their personal peccadilloes and homophobic theology, which makes them like hysterical updates from the Salem witch trials of The Crucible. John Hurt as the big screen "Chancellor" seems too much like the Wizard of Oz thundering away with smoke and mirrors (and ironically contradicting his rebel role in a filmed version of Nineteen Eighty-Four) and browbeating his underlings much like we saw Hitler in Downfall (Der Untergang), though they are lit more dramatically in the dark. Scarier would have been a more insidious contemporary fear-monger, like the cynically folksy Andy Griffith in A Face in the Crowd. There is amusing satire of media manipulation and a Fox News type egomaniacal, rabble-rousing TV commentator watching himself adoringly in mirrors. Sinead Cusack adds needed gravity as a haunted doctor.
The most intellectually captivating story angle, visually revealed through flashbacks that relieve talky explication, is a greedy Syriana-like corporate conspiracy at the heart of the politics (or The Constant Gardener as it's pharmaceutical companies) that is investigated by a craggily persistent Stephen Rea as an old-fashioned cop (reminding me of the career police officer who found himself a Nazi interrogator in the docu-drama Sophie Scholl - The Final Days (Sophie Scholl - Die letzten Tage)).
Hugo Weaving has the difficult task of doing virtually an audio book version of the movie, as he is masked in all but one scene, but his voice is marvelous throughout, particularly in his introductory monologue of V words. Flashy editing of his actions helps give him more expressiveness, including The Matrix-like effects emblematic of writer/producers the Wachowskis. It was very effective that "V" craftily brainwashes his minions into sacrificial fearlessness as much as the manipulative puppeteers of suicide bombers in Paradise Now. His controversial climatic goal for inciting hope is actually a bit confusing in its intent and seems to confuse Kristallnacht with the bombing of the Reichstag as acts of rebellion, to continue the film's overt Nazi parallels. But "V's own final battle brilliantly uses imagery from Ned Kelly's revolutionary stand that still spurs Australian nationalism.
His and Stephen Fry's parallel collection of rescued masterpieces from "the vaults of the Ministry of Objectionable Material" just seemed isolationistically nostalgic (complete with a constant symbolic background painting like a Renaissance Annunciation of a savior and a lot of Shakespeare quotes) and had little of the sense of comparative priorities we saw in John Frankenheimer's The Train which weighed lives against the French art heritage.
Natalie Portman's English accent is annoyingly, ungeographically bland and inconsistent but her visuals are so dynamic, especially with her eyes, that I was only distracted in unemotional scenes.
Which is true of the whole film - that the visuals are so powerful they outweigh any thinking. (4/3/2006)

Night Watch (Nochnoi Dozor) brings the world as we know it, and the world we don't see, once again to the verge of the apocalypse in an enormously entertaining manner. In this Part 1 of a trilogy, the fate of the world hangs in an intriguing tension.
Amidst the satire and humor (and a lot of red blood) as the iconography and legendary participants are very quickly explained, the story has a fine-tuned sense of ethics about sin and redemption that gives the plot more substance than such nonsense as Van Helsing. I particularly liked the resonance of the resentment of the Forces of Darkness' against the centuries old treaty of balance that leaves them simmering at the mercy of licensure by the Forces of Light, and the rules against them do seem a bit arbitrary as evidently dispensed in kind of an equivalent to the Ministry of Magic in the Harry Potter stories.
While director/co-adapter Timur Bekmambetov creates his own visual universe (or at least maybe fulfilling that of novelist Sergei Lukyanenko which I look forward to reading in English translation when it's available later this year), imagery is cheerfully borrowed from big and small movies in the sci fi/time travel/vampire genres, with winks at 12 Monkeys, Brazil, The Navigator: A Mediaeval Odyssey, etc., as well as amusing references to other legends and sources, including a dubbed clip from the Dracula episode of the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The subway chase scenes (filmed in St. Petersburg) recall the small Hungarian film Kontroll, particularly in the cinematography. "Anton" at one point sure looks like Bono of U2 in his The Fly stage, while his apartment seems to have the same sunglass decor as the TV version of La Femme Nikita.
While I loved the non-Hollywood faces of the actors that visually express the cynicism and world-weariness of an eternal fight, I did get the two blondes mixed up as I wasn't even sure for awhile that there were two different women in the story. (A friend confirmed that at first he was also confused.)
In a terrific contrast to the noisy opening clash of mythic knights (which I just caught in time though I missed a minute or two as evidently this film is amazingly showing sans any other previews), the outdoor urban locations are used in marvelous tandem with grungy interiors and just spooky enough special effects of mirrors, integration of computer and television screens, whooshing (and a bit repetitive) flashbacks and disappearances amidst flying camera work. Animation is used effectively to tell the back story.
There should be an award for best English subtitles ever! Not only are they always black-lined for ease of reading, they also do not give away punch lines of jokes or dialog too soon as instead they frequently roll out Mitch Miller style while the words are spoken, including attention to puns, such as for "underground" to probably make up for localized jokes.
For additional entertaining visual commentary, vampires speak in red and the red fades away into bloody-looking smoke that surrounds characters. Sometimes letters are italicized, capitalized, enlarged or move around for emphasis, especially when characters are shouting or fade into another dimension. I guess "Yegor" and "Andrey" are new standard of transliteration for the more familiar "Igor" and "Andrei".
I hope this attention to detail will be replicated by other distributors. Though not all the street signage is translated, the credits are so a monolingual viewer can confirm that's a Bravery song over the closing credits and what are the other musical operatic and balletic references. (The original score and songs are also very effective.) You can also read the acknowledgment to all the second hand clothing shops in Moscow for the costumes, though maybe that's where they got the wigs too.
I live in a neighborhood with a lot of Russian immigrants and I was surprised how few people were at the opening matinée. Maybe they already saw it on DVD, but then they missed the visceral advantages of seeing it on a big screen.
I very much look forward to seeing the rest of the trilogy! (2/27/2006)

Peter Jackson's King Kong is a very long, loving homage that uses the most expensive techniques available now in order to recreate in today's jaded audiences what the children of 1933 experienced in their theaters. With the terrific help of human beings Naomi Watts and Andy Serkis, he achieves his goals.
The film is set up as three acts. The opening establishment of Depression New York City is more theatrical than Seabiscuit did more documentary-style and more effective than Cinderella Man (which also showed the Hooverville in Central Park) achieved. Period New York City is lovingly recreated, as if from a Busby Berkeley movie set or Berenice Abbott photographs, including the elevated trains, Times Square displays and lots of street crowds of extras (kudos to the historical consultant listed in the credits and the use of skyline photographs from Columbia's Avery Architectural Library). Linking this context to Watts's "Ann Darrow" as a starving vaudevillian is a nice story touch. But it was hard for the many toddlers and small children in the audience to sit through.
Jack Black, however, is over the top here, and most of the audience didn't get the joke when he claims to "Ann": "You can trust me. I'm a movie producer," with his raised eyebrows and stilted gestures, as if he were in a silent movie. As he becomes more villainous at the end of Act 2, he becomes more effective.
The prologue to Act 2 is the ship, and the crew is a bit stereotyped with way too many references to Conrad's Heart of Darkness, already much recalled in Apocalypse Now. Thomas Kretschmann as the captain, however, is excellent throughout. Jamie Bell not only gets to very briefly dance, as in Billy Elliott, but also shows off the dramatic muscles he exercised in Undertow.
The script just doesn't develop Adrien Brody's character enough on the ship, especially in bolstering his relationship with Watts, thereby weakening his role in Act 3 and the finale, as her relationship with Kong sure seems to have more feeling. There is some amusement throughout in comparing Brody's writer to Kyle Chandler's movie star hero.
But little gripes are forgotten as the ship approaches Skull Island. As the ocean stretches out as far as the eye can see the horizon, recreating with special effects what Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World did with the real thing, the spookiness is established wonderfully with threatening, sculptured rocks and very involving multiple rolls, crashes and landing in a fog.
While some of my friends complained that the natives are still portrayed as racist as in the original, I thought they were shown to be appropriately freaked out from living on an island with such creatures as we're about to be introduced to, and their propitiatory precautions appropriate.
The island adventure is the very long centerpiece of the film. It is unstopping bang bang bang adventure of limitless types, including a paleontological and insect wonderland come to very realistic life, that seems to use the latest findings about mobility and capabilities of huge creatures. It is a bravura combination of animatronics, computer animation, puppetry, models, mattes, and more (with virtually all the effects, according to the credits, accomplished in New Zealand). It is a boy's imagination run amok and is exhaustingly overwhelming, but sure is a heck of a lot of fun, even as I couldn't figure out why the human body count wasn't even higher, as some angles recalled classic Indiana Jones chase scenes. While the very last credit on the screen is a tribute to "the original explorers of Skull Island," directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, there is surely some tribute, too, to Ray Harryhausen's mythic creature battles.
Amidst the extensive adventures, however, this act, as well as the Act 3 finale with its romantic interlude in a wintry New York City, are anchored by Watts's passionate interaction with Kong, whether across from Serkis as his eyes and believable ape movements or in her blue screened imagination, which she proved so fertile at in the satirical Ellie Parker. While one of the last credits salutes "the incomparable Fay Wray" (and mentions her in the dialog), this "Ann" is very resourceful (even as she manages to sustain few injuries in very physical activities on the island, let alone tolerate cold NYC and a windy skyscraper in a thin shift.) The audience laughed heartily as she repeated her vaudeville routines for him.
Even more than on the island, her relationship with Kong in New York City, climaxing of course on the Empire State Building, is much more emotionally satisfying than her chemistry with Brody, with almost as much focus on her expressive blue eyes as Kong's. Because Kong is marvelous -- whether as attacker, protector or playmate, except for one theatrical boxing punch against a dinosaur.
The music heavily borrows from Max Steiner's original score in tribute, with the additional score effectively propulsive. (1/8/2005)

The visual success of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is made possible by the innovations in special effects that were developed for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. While some of the settings and monsters seem a bit recycled from that epic, the magical creations of the novel are recreated believably and beautifully.
The opening of the story marvelously retains the setting of war time Britain during the blitz, complete with an Andrews Sisters song and war reports on the radio, setting the film in a reality where good was clearly fighting evil and evil was ruthlessly attacking civilians (just a bit of imagination is needed to jolt us to contemporary comparisons on either perceived side of several current struggles). While most of today's audience will not know about the evacuation of London's children to the safer countryside and their knowledge of train stations is probably from Harry Potter, the embarkation farewell is almost as much a tearjerker as Dumbo being separated from his mother.
Adding to the verisimilitude are the excellent child stars. Georgie Henley's "Lucy Pevensie" could be the granddaughter of "Scout" in To Kill A Mockingbird for capturing wide-eyed innocence and curiosity without any cloying sweetness. William Moseley would get my pre-teen heart beating faster and he seems destined to play Jude Law's son, though without seeing him play with toy soldiers I wonder how "Peter" suddenly gains expertise in military strategy and tactics other than instinctively rising to the white man's burden. Anna Popplewell's "Susan" is not faint of heart as she combines femininity and tomboy action quite fetchingly. "Skandar Keynes" as "Edmund" well captures the temptation of sibling rivalry. Too bad they will too quickly age out for the sequels.
As twinkly as James McAvoy is as "Mr. Tumnus" the faun, Tilda Swinton is so charismatic as the White Witch self-declared Queen of Narnia, that not only does she immediately get my vote in the MTV Movie Awards as Villain of the Year, even over "Palpatine" in Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith, but I thought she was more effective than bland, Liam Neeson-talking lion "Aslan", even as she was very Saddam-like using informers, committing torture, imprisonment, habitat destruction and offering candy as bribery (good lesson here about not taking candy from pretty strangers, let alone tattling on your siblings). Too bad her costumes were a bit awkward, but her hair design was both regal and woman warrior.
Twenty years ago when I was first introduced to this book by reading it to my sons, I was completely oblivious to the Christian imagery, and could do so with this adaptation as well. Then as now I saw the gifts from Father Christmas as much a benign representation of the positive aspects of the Winter Solstice rather than eternal winter, as Christmas is at Hogwarts. Because the scene of "Aslan"'s confrontation with the Witch is bloodless so as not to frighten children, it seemed more about emasculation to me than sacrifice, though having it take place in a Stonehenge setting seemed too specifically pagan (and that was constructed to celebrate summer any way). The battles are far less violent in clash and final results than in the Rings saga, which they otherwise imitate.
The talking animals are marvelously English, without any contemporarization or mugging that American animation inserts. Particularly fine are Ray Winstone as the voice of "Mr. Beaver" and Rupert Everett as the voice of "Fox." The wolves are quite the scariest things in the movie, as well as the exhilarating chase scenes, so much so that I don't know if the "wolf trainer" credit was literal or animatronic. I didn't even recognize Jim Broadbent at first as "The Professor," while the housekeepers' accent seemed a bit out of place. The centaur wasn't particularly memorable.
A warning not to leave your seats immediately after the human participants are identified in the credits: the film continues to set up for the sequel.
The closing songs by Alanis Morrissette and Tim Finn were lovely. The score was fairly pedestrian action-adventure, coming to life during the chase scenes and too bombastic during the battles.
The dozen or so special effects teams listed in the credits demonstrated the globalization of the movie business these days -- from New Zealand to Guatemala to the Czech Republic and Poland to ILM and Los Angeles.
The film is long, but the small children in the audience were only restless during the early set up scenes and were quite involved once the thrilling action started. (12/17/2005)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is a wonderful treat for the fans of the books and the earlier movies in the series, as it wastes no time explaining anything to newbies.
After the prologue, our first look at Harry reveals he's now a gangly young teen. for even more visceral reaction than seeing Anakin Skywalker at the same gawky age in Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones because here it's been the same actor who we have seen age on screen; I immediately vote for continuing with the trio of Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, Emma Watson as Hermione Granger and Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley for the rest of the adaptations, as they are literally growing into their roles. (Though with them fitting in other movies in between these I do feel pangs of maternal guilt at their lost childhoods.) Twins James and Oliver Phelps as the Weasley twins have also developed more hunkily than the characters' in my imagination from the pages in the book.
All of their rangy messiness is particularly apt as director Mike Newell better captures the ambiance of normal English boarding school life than the other films, from the dorms to the common and dining rooms and professors' offices to the horrors of the first formal dance and the first awkward stirrings of attraction to the opposite sex, which adds a lot of leavening humor to the adventure. The attention to detail in the production design is marvelous; I counted three people in the credits responsible for draperies. Hogwarts is notably more multicultural this year, and not just because of the international Tri-Wizard Tournament; it challenges American stereotypes to hear "Cho Chang" speak with a Scottish brogue like the inimitable Maggie Smith does here too.
Eliminating the dreary annual summer stay at the relatives helps to literally whoosh us fast into magical environs as it quickly moves to the creatively envisioned quidditch world tournament that is necessarily rushed but is still a lot of fun before capturing the spookiness of the stealth attack by the followers of You Know Who -- and viewers have to already know who he and Sirius Black are, the family relationships, and what are Death Eaters, poly juice, sorting, etc. One small weakness is that quidditch fans dress in the same outlandish nonsense as muggle sports fans, but the visiting tournament teams' costumes and choreography are even more fun than the opening ceremonies of the Olympics.
Until that time in the future when a very long, faithfully done mini-series adaptation can be made, it's forgivable that in the rush to fit in as many climaxes as possible of the long, complicated story it is a bit hard to have story insights to make you care for the new characters, though they are played by charming youngsters, particularly handsome Robert Pattinson as Hogwarts' official tournament competitor, and the girl classmates who amusingly prove that female wizards mature earlier too. I appreciate the effort gone to cast a young Bulgarian as competitor "Vicktor Krum" with the right physique, but it's a good thing he's seen quite briefly.
I lost count at ten at the number of special effects companies in the U.S. and Britain involved in the production, but it did seem as if CGI was put to effective background service to quaintly old-fashioned models, animatronics and mattes that fit the Hogwarts environment. I was particularly impressed that no matter how cool an effect was, it wasn't repeated for preening purposes and always served the story, as did the music. The underwater scenes were wonderful. The landscape of Hogwarts, from the castle to the lake to the forest, have a real sense of geography. Those who did stay through all the credits were rewarded by being assured that no dragons were harmed in the production, as the dragon challenge was thrilling even as it fondly recalled Ray Harryhausen's mythic battles for a new generation. I was not as impressed with Liam Neeson's make-up for Vol de Mort, as he seemed too much like Marty Feldman's Igor in Young Frankenstein.
But even with all these impressive effects, the films remain a showcase of the richness of British acting talent, of artists who go from TV to theater to serious indie cinema to small roles in this populist extravaganza. Brendan Gleeson seems more avuncular as this term's Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher than was in the book, while having fun with his body props. I thought Miranda Richardson was not even as obnoxious or tartily made up on screen as Rita Skeeter is in the books. But I hope they all are signed up for the long term, as this fourth film clearly ends like a serial and I look forward to the next film as much as I look ahead to the next book.
The pre-noon matinee on opening weekend was crowded with families, but two of the few young teen boys were in front of me on the endless refreshments line as the movie start time approached. The 14 year old friend took off, leaving the 13 year old with the bill for the multiple drinks and popcorn and he got alarmed that his $20 wouldn't be enough. So time pushed me into a Pay It Forward moment and I offered to cover the $6.26 difference, giving him specific instructions as to where I was sitting in the same screening for his friend to pay me back. Needless to say, he never showed up. Hey, kid, karma's a bitch ! (11/24/2005)

Zathura is rollicking family entertainment. I haven't read, either by myself or to my kids, any books by Chris Van Allsburg or seen other adaptations of his work, so I came with an open mind and laughed heartily at the humor and got caught up in the adventure.
The opening set up is near pitch perfect in capturing family interactions. It's nice to see Tim Robbins get to play closer to his self than usual as a grey-haired dad. Though the discussion about the impact of divorce is a bit heavy-handed, it's still believable. As the mother of sons who fought up to junior high I can testify that the brother battles are impeccably portrayed, both in the dialog by writers David Koepp and John Kamps and as easily and naturally enlivened by Jonah Bobo (kid brother "Danny") and Josh Hutcherson (older brother "Walter"), who was also wonderful in Little Manhattan. This naturalism turned out to be important for the key element of the theme and plot that I hadn't anticipated as it continued to avoid mawkishness.
The set-up to the game-playing is very well-done. I like that the game is old and beat-up and each card is worn with age. Up until the theme kicks in, I was thoroughly enjoying the film as a sci fi take on The Cat in the Hat. Jon Favreau segues marvelously from the daily reality to well-integrated special effects and keeps excellent pacing balance between family relationships and the action. There's only a brief shot here and there where it's obvious that blue-screen acting reactions are going on. The trailer managed not to give away all the visual and plot twists.
Half way through the game, Dax Shepard shows up as the Astronaut and he's an entertaining cross between Harrison Ford and Zach Braff. His blend of seriousness and charm adds to the credibility of the continuing story.
The teen sister's portrayal is a bit thin script-wise, but she doesn't have a lot to do, except for a frisson of an amusing Star Wars-referenced plot point. At least she's not just a damsel in distress. There are affectionate tributes to other sci fi icons as well, such as an E.T.-like bicycle floating around and a robot very like the one in Lost in Space, and some silly jokes like planet Tsouris-3, but those are consistent with the old-fashionedness of the board game.
For once, John Debney's busy and non-stop music fits the action.
The film does not pander to children and enthrallingly keeps adult attention in its twists and resolution, and it is as much a warm-hearted comedy as well as a jolly good tale. Too bad I probably won't be able to get my 20something sons, who are now good friends, to see it as they would appreciate the movie's lesson. (11/21/2005)

Yes I looked forward to Serenity as a fan of writer/director Joss Whedon from TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer through the Firefly series that inspired this film, but anyone who likes rollicking, intelligent sci fi movies will also love that it is the most fun, straight ahead sci fi movie of the year.
Whedon plunges us into the post-TV series plot much as Star Wars initially plunged us into an ongoing story. So newcomers won't know that the information revealed in the opening segment was still being built up to in the TV series, as fans and newbies get all caught up quickly with a minimum of explication.
The essential back stories on each character are quickly established with nifty visuals and various tense and romantic relationships can be easily inferred without knowing how they got that way, even as they progress, some in surprising ways, through the snappy, bantering camaraderie that is Whedon's hallmark. Unlike most films these days the trailers don't use up all the good lines, partly because some of them are only funny in the specific context.
The movie doesn't invent much new in the genre, but George Lucas didn't either. Yes Nathan Fillion's "Mal Reynolds" is a lot like "Han Solo" as a captain of a rag tag ship, but he's more than a smuggler with his memory-haunted back story as a veteran from a losing side and moral code. The blowhard elements of "Solo" are given almost satirically to Adam Baldwin's tough guy "Jayne" (which always seemed to be a bit of "A Man Named Sue" kind of joke.) Religion is a component, but not a force, as the Christian "Shepherd" has a small, advisory role here.
Though this far future is familiar from other imagined futures, with a post-war, victorious alliance, the particular political situation the characters are caught in has a specific pay off that is both smart and emotional, emphasized by the numbers who are sacrificed for its suppression.
But Whedon's strength is always his unusual female characters for sci fi, particularly his trademark teen girl as "The Weapon" with "she's simply extraordinary" powers (the series had been cancelled before we found out about all her powers and her newly developed uneasy alliance with the crew is a creative element of the film); plus a sex-starved tomboy mechanic and Gina Torres as a fierce soldier -- and the tough men who are intensely loyal to them, particularly a brother and a loving husband. One female character is somewhat mysterious here, and even misrepresented a bit as her importance is pared to her essentials, but she is ancillary to the plot here. Key is that you really care about these characters and what unexpectedly happens to them.
Chiwetel Ejiofor, with his native Brit accent, makes a neat enemy as "The Operative" with more intriguing motivations than usual for an implacable foe as he is both cynical and ideological, though his samurai sword calling card is a bit overly dramatic.
Though I wasn't able to stay for the credits to see what special effects techniques were used, it seemed that whooshing editing and shaking models effectively made up for a small CGI budget. The busy screen is filled at all times. There are background, imaginative touches throughout the production design, such as the dominant Asian alphabets.
There are a few banjo sounds in David Newman's swooping score to remind of the original premise of the series as a space western, though the cowboy element isn't obvious here. (10/3/2005)

The Brothers Grimm is a delightful reminder of the power of folk tales for humor, shock and awe. Terry Gilliam accents the Python-esque political jokes with eye-dazzling visuals that are both funny and scary.
The film opens (and closes) with what feels like a loving tribute to the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby On the Road movies of a cheerful pair of regular guy con men traveling through colorful geographies, and there's more than one reference to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court as these are thinkers not superheroes. While it takes a while for Matt Damon and Heath Ledger to develop on screen chemistry (I wonder if Damon's credited entourage had anything to do with that), Damon's wandering British accent fits in with the good-natured joshing.
While the Yankee won with science, the philosophical debate here is Napoleon's foppish army, with its buffoonish Italian ally, trying to impose rational Enlightenment on a "French Occupied Germany" bound by superstitions, wryly hinting at their cultural affinity for ideological myths. Jacob and William Grimm are charged, under penalty of gruesome death of course, to prove that strange phenomenon have rational explanations. But Ledger's "Jake" actually believes in "the magic beans" and the film warmly supports the power of such notions (either that or, says "Will", "They have a lot more funding than we do."), much as does The Princess Bride.
The combination is reminiscent of Ghostbusters and Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow, but quite a bit more frightening than Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl or any Disneyfication of folk tales)-- from girls in coffins, to lots of bugs, to horrific spells, to severed torsos, to medieval torture a la Young Frankenstein, which reinforces the original role of these stories, according to Bruno Bettelheim. We see bits and pieces for the inspirations for the Grimm Brothers and other compilers with scary elements of "Little Red Riding Hood," (that's the most explicit child swallowing I've seen in awhile), "Sleeping Beauty," "Jack and the Beanstalk," "The Gingerbread Man," "The Pied Piper of Hamelin," "Rapunzel," "Cinderella," etc. (The toddler next to me at a matinee fell asleep after the first half hour so I'm not sure how small kids would react.)
Most of the audience is far too busy keeping up with the ever morphing images to take note of the constant stream verbal puns and euro jokes about frogs, other than Jonathan Pryce's and Peter Stormare's over the top foils and such broad visual ones with wigs, compared with Mackenzie Crook who is an amusing sidekick.
The special effects are wonderful, with even a better moving forest than Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. The film is a bit slow to get to the finale, with the additional gypsy-flavored denouement, but it does all hang together at the climax.
The women are notably not bland, from Lena Headey's feisty "Angelika," Monica Bellucci's Evil Queen who may just be the fairest one of all, spirited young girls and a recurring old crone.
It looks like every resident of Prague must have been involved in the production and is thanked in the closing credits. (8/30/2005)

The Island is a bloated pastiche of dozens of science fiction movies magnified with an enormous budget. The DVD could come with pop-up footnotes of every other movie that's referenced -- from Logan's Run, to Brazil, to 1984, to Coma, and even Woody Allen's Sleepers, and on and on and on. With about forty-five minutes of exaggerated, laughably ridiculous chases from bad guys who can't shoot straight cut out, or else there's another twist that the lead characters are really cats with nine lives, there could have been a serviceably pedestrian futuristic thriller with visually entertaining production design, comparable to Imposter and somewhat better than Paycheck, though both had more substance from their Philip Dick stories than this film. It is refreshing to have a docile society broken-through first by human curiosity before it gets around, very briefly, to sex (as learned from Scarlett Johansson's Calvin Klein commercial), which somehow leads to the sudden development of a contagious moral sense of human bonds that abruptly crosses over to an effective Djimon Hounsou.
Almost everything about it is confusing, from the time setting that is far enough into the 21st century for technological development and various building abandonment, but not so far away that a blizzard of contemporary product placement is still possible, as the social, economic, environmental and political structures seem pretty much the same as the present. Sometimes the plot holes that go by are quickly covered up further on with passing dialog. Humor also helps, particularly with Steve Buscemi and plays on Ewan McGregor's real life persona.
But the faults of this film have to lie far more at the hands of director Michael Bay than the writers or the overwhelmed actors, whose blue screen outlines can be glimpsed. On The Tonight Show, McGregor had described other filmed scenes that involved more human interaction and could yet show up on the DVD.
The classical riffs in the soundtrack are borrowed to good propulsive effect to try and differentiate the endless chase scenes.
While we do see where all the money went, shouldn't Bay get as much financial backlash as Cimino did for Heaven's Gate? (8/18/2005)

Land of the Dead is a brilliant demonstration that a narrow genre can be an effective mechanism for a full-rounded film with pointed social commentary.
Writer/director George Romero uses the zombie basics as a vocabulary to illuminate larger issues and refers as flagrantly to other movies as most animated comedies do. I'm not sure if I've seen all of his other three zombie movies from the past, but I have seen many of the more recent re-makes, tributes and inspireds-by, whether plagues, post- World War III nuclear wars, post-environmental disasters, etc., and this film leaves them all far, far behind.
He throws in the requisite gore for the expectant fans, and there is almost as much blood as another remake set in Detroit Assault on Precinct 13, but this is an apocalyptic film with real ideas behind it about human beings and society. The film is cleverer from the get go, as behind, over and around the credits, Romero brings us up-to-date from his other films and presumes a post-zombie world as being now, with all the freighted symbolism. We are then thrust into a lively band of diverse characters on a mission and we have to slowly figure out their motives and how mercenary or sympathetic they are.
But while he plays on the stock characters--including the hero, the naive newbie, the blow-hard, the techie tinkerer etc.-- that are usually as familiar as a troop in a World War II flick, these folks have more interesting hopes and insights, as well as gender and racial diversity.
It helps that he has excellent actors. Simon Baker is a Han Solo with guts, brains and morals (it's nice to see there's life after TV's The Guardian) with a zombie family history and whose Millennium Falcon is a super-tank of his invention called Dead Reckoning that blasts "sky flower" fireworks to distract the zombies. And whose chiseled close-ups make a handsome contrast to the zombies.
John Leguizamo is a gangster with tragic ambitions and gutsy vengeance. Asia Argento is introduced in a truly frightening gladiator arena that recalls Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and brings a lot more chemistry and complicated back story to the Princess Leia tough gal than is usual, such that I almost didn't mind there was only a frisson of romance.
What makes all these characters different is that they actually think, so they can notice when zombies are thinking when one starts sounding like Chewbacca (When one character notes: "They're pretending to be alive," the hero rejoins "Isn't that what we're doing? Pretending to be alive?") and learning to use weapons like the apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Dennis Hopper is an inspired choice for the capitalist mastermind of the Renaissance Plaza-like office tower society, with fewer ticks than his similar role in Waterworld so he is more malevolent in a suit.
Unlike most of these genre films just have the band backed up into stalwart defenders, as the marauding zombies do recall all the recent even bigger budget attacks of the machines films like Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines and done so badly in I, Robot, Romero instead draws on the pro-active scraggly band of determined rebels model, complete with a fiery Irishman to inspire them, to terrific effect. They are set within a contained, scarily believable new social order, such that Hopper's "We do not negotiate with terrorists!" takes on complex shades, and cleverly imagined production design, similar but more starkly dark and amusingly satirical than the imagined elite cities of the future separated by barbed wire and guards from desperate slums, including outcast lesbians, in the far more glum Code 46.
You absolutely know when every attack is going to happen, as Romero sets up the expected, but he still teases you with verbal and visual jokes and lulls so you get caught, blam, every time.
The make-up effects and gritty costumes are superior and the heart-pumping electronic music propulsively carries the action forward.
The conclusion is surprisingly philosophically layered about survival than justice or revenge. (7/18/2005)

War of the Worlds is just an overblown disaster movie.
It is pretty much the old version with Gene Barry just updated with fancier, well-integrated CGI, a lot more extras and heavy-handed 9/11 references. We first see Tom Cruise as his working class All the Right Moves character aged into "Ray," an irresponsible divorced dad. Then the aliens land and he spends the rest of the movie dealing with just one damn thing after another with his kids in trying to go over the river and through the woods to grandma's house.
And that's it. There are only occasional thoughts in this movie's head.
As a sci fi movie, the basic conception of the alien weapons gestating underground then kick-started by electromagnetic streaks of lightning is visually fun, if a bit of a Tremors re-tread. We see the aliens and their weapons almost too close up so they lose their mysteriousness as a fear factor, though they look a lot like the unconvincing ones in Signs, but of course with E.T. hands, and they may intentionally be a bit cheesy to recall the earlier version. (The Hensons' Creature Shop should really do all aliens.)
As a post-apocalyptic examination of human reactions in the face of catastrophe, we get the usual, but very large, frantic crowds of panicked and fighting refugees and only glimmers of originality, particularly when Tim Robbins shows up as a shell-shocked survivor.
But the film in general takes a much more individual survival view of vengeance than either Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith or Batman Begins, as this is supposed to be grounded in reality. The real references are hammered home with the kids twice asking dad "Is this the terrorists?" after he staggers catatonically home covered in white ash, streetscapes full of posted notices of the missing, and falling (empty) clothes dropping slowly to the ground from up high.
Notably, it is not Cruise's character who tries to be some sort of hero, but his teen son, well-played by Justin Chatwin. His rebellious exchanges with his dad are the most natural dialog in the film (nice touch that he wears a Red Sox cap vs. his dad the Yankee fan).
A key decision point in how far "Ray" will go to choose to take on family responsibility happens off-screen, despite the PG-13 rating, which made me ponder how other directors would have shown that struggle not just more graphically but more emotionally. Let alone that because Cruise is such a big star we never for a moment worry about his survival, despite the number of times it sure looks like he's being blown up but his character doesn't even get injured.
There's also an annoying Holocaust reference when "Ray" has to make a Sophie's Choice in protecting his kids, but the threat is more of separation than life and death at that moment and is more about his growing sense of paternal responsibility.
Director Steven Spielberg flirts with an homage to The Searchers at the conclusion, but falls for a sentimental touch instead that had the whole audience a bit quizzical as to its believability, even as it stresses the family lessons learned.
Dakota Fanning is annoyingly Hollywood precocious in the first half, but settles down naturally into scared kid.
Some touches had a quizzical symbolism, such as the effort to reach Boston's Back Bay past frequent sign posts to "Athens", the undamaged Minuteman statue, the ex-wife being pregnant with the rich new husband--so how old was when she left the seat of America's revolution to have their teenager? -- even if Otto's real pregnancy had to be written into the story), the teen's school paper on the French occupation of Algeria, and so on.
It was nice to see the working class bit parts taken by actors from The Wire and the best production design is in the early recreation of their dense, close-knit neighborhood, even if Cruise makes no effort to have a Jersey docks accent.
John Williams' music is commendably more restrained than usual and the long patches with silence let you hear your breath catching and heart beating faster through the best, most tense scenes. (6/30/2005)

Batman Begins is a mostly effective, serious retelling of what is now a legend as a dark, post 9/11 rumination on fear, vengeance and justice. This Batman's approach could be a third way between the Jedi and the Sith as a catharsis for angst.
While the opening scenes in the Mysterious Orient that probably appeal more to comic book readers at first seem exaggeratedly confusing, director/co-writer Christopher Nolan integrates them with pregnant flashbacks and superb production design, particularly through the recurring visual motif of bats. The attention to visual and aural detail is marvelous, including the triggering, Faust story opera that young Wayne attends (Arrigo Boito's Mefistofele) with additional references later on to the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil".
Visually, this Gotham integrates the grit and spookiness of different types of special effects from Sleepy Hollow, 28 Days Later. . . and Escape from New York to create a complete environment.
The sardonic script even gives some thought to the future of cities, from the senior Wayne's philanthropic focus on building a mass transit system to "Bruce" paralleling Abraham's debate with God as to whether Sodom and Gomorrah are worth saving, and evidently Gotham can put together a minyan.
Christian Bale is a key factor in grounding the film in psychological realism, as he makes "Bruce Wayne"'s step-by-step, guilt-ridden choices build up believably. He is also charming as he creates the alter-ego of a carefree playboy. We only get too few glimpses of just how much he bulked up and worked out after The Machinist, but his personal trainer deserves his line in the credits. Also keeping a foot in realism are the sword fights that eschew the popular tricks from Asian films for more refreshingly old-fashioned swashbuckling, though the final fight, with a twist on ideological enemies I hadn't anticipated, went on a bit too long even if the points it makes are intellectual.
The casting choices are both an added strength and distracting weakness, particularly the selections of mostly actors from the British Isles. Third time's the charm for Liam Neeson as a sword-wielding mentor compared to his not quite credible takes on that role in Star Wars: Episode I -Phantom Menace and Kingdom of Heaven, maybe because here his character ends up more complex. Michael Caine is simply great as a play on the British military officer's assistant definition of batman with an added, warm, father figure element. Cillian Murphy is devious without camping up his evil psychiatrist. When he lets loose with one cackle it's a charmer and he uses those beautiful baby blues to creepy effect. But that wonderful actor Tom Wilkinson is not only miscast as a gangster, it's a bit pathetic that the fictional Gotham's underground is run by cliché imitation The Sopranos, regardless of fealty to the old comics. Gary Oldham seemed wasted as a ground-down by corruption cop.
As to the Americans, Morgan Freeman gets to twinkle a bit more ironically as a mentor than in Unleashed. Katie Holmes has no chemistry with Bale but at least she seems earnest. From other parts of the world, Ken Watanabe and Rutger Hauer are underused.
I did get lost on some plot points about the key weapon, but it's cool looking without understanding its parameters and it's enough that it has to do with light and dark.
The music is mediocre.(6/30/2005)

Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith is a thrilling capstone and revelation that more than a dozen hours over 28 years has built up a universe, a mythology and a galactic force whose fulcrum shockingly turns on a tear coursing down Anakin Skywalker's face.
But, even after three viewings, it is moving and stunning that to discover that the prequels and sequels are merely exposition for that tear. (Did photographer Sam Taylor-Wood know that in advance when he put Hayden Christensen on the cover of her Crying Men portrait series?) I, too, cried, several times.
Yes the eye is also filled with a far more elaborate production designed landscape and cityscapes than any previous Star Wars movie could produce, what with all the advances in computer generated images, though with far less insight on life far, far away than was our first look at this society many years ago.
The opening battles seem a replay we've seen before, even with a few new eye and ear catching characters, such as the stooped, coughing flesh-and-metal General Grievous, a foreshadowing of the future bad guy to come.
But then we have the first hint that the physical battles are secondary to the central conflict - the battle for Anakin's soul. We are suddenly forced to recall his disturbing, seemingly uncharacteristic act from Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones, when the reckless, petulant teen wreaked Old Testament-like vengeance on the sand people for his mother's death that he had helplessly foreseen (and it is important throughout to recall revealed information from Episodes I and II that we may have understandably dozed through for its boring, seeming insignificance then, including that a Sith was more than just another colorful enemy). We had excused this violence due to his grief, his youth, and perhaps because it uneasily recalled incidents in our human, and particularly American, history.
But Christensen's "Anakin" has filled out into a striding, strikingly handsome young man in the prime of life, saving his mentor Obi-wan Kenobi time and again, who surely can now be in control of his expanded powers. Until Ian McDiarmid's chillingly curdling Chancellor starts openly manipulating "Anakin"s emotions and slowly begins to tie together the whole series for us and reveals that he, through at least three guises, has been pulling the story strands together all along and will continue to do so.
As we try to keep track of the various political machinations of the Chancellor and the Jedi Council, our hearts go out to "Anakin" as he struggles to be faithful to everyone he has trusted, even as each asks him to keep conflicting secrets from the others, ironically by insisting that he "trust your feelings." But each has a different version of the truth.
It is heartbreaking that he does try to reach out more than once for Jedi guidance, but Yoda's ascetic spirituality can't ease his excruciating torment. Despite stiflingly wooden dialog in bedroom, banter or battle (such that no other actor's abilities are to be judged by the recitations here) we are drawn into a totally unexpected anguish -- "Anakin"s tragic flaw is his love for Padme.
Yes, it is compounded by his arrogance, his anger, his pride, his hubris, his impatience, but we've seen those character flaws develop from being told by the Jedi he's The Chosen One, what with the extraordinary level of those mysterious midichlorians coursing through his body. So he freely--slowly, painfully, reluctantly-- makes the choice that will change the fate of an entire universe.
His next actions are shocking -- earning the PG-13 rating just for the idea of what he's done, not that we see him do it, emphasized by surrounding him in an Albert Speer-ish mise en scene. The final, extended confrontation with Kenobi on a volcanic planet is viscerally gripping, the absolute best light saber battle ever, even as it follows skirmishes between other familiar characters that are also exciting (and it is fun to see the Wookie home world).
The political ruminations about liberty morphing into totalitarianism, recalling Hitler's election and a singular super-power on this planet, while looking ahead to how "Princess Leia" will fulfill her mother's goals for The Rebel Alliance, are dark secondary themes.
But the transformation to Darth Vader that we know will be coming, has to come, that is inevitable and necessary to come because we already know the conclusion of his life is far more terrifying than we ever expected, especially as it is edited back and forth between what will bring us directly to Episode IV: A New Hope.
We never would have thought that what he did, he did for love. Back in 1977, George Lucas tried to tell Rolling Stone Anakin's arc was what the whole series was about, but the interviewer thought that "Vader" escaping in a pod was simply a "to be continued" gimmick and didn't get it. None of us did. Until now.
Lucas could now update Rolling Stone and continue (quoted in a fair use excerpt): "[T]he story is not about a guy who was born a monster--it's about a good boy who was loving and had exceptional powers, but how that eventually corrupted him and how he confused possessive love with compassionate love. . . And that's why they say he was too old to be a Jedi because he made his emotional connections. His undoing is that he loveth too much. . . [I]n this particular case the gods happen to be a life-form that allows a cell to divide. So it's a metaphor: that which brings life. . . But every cell has one of these life-forms in it. It's a simplified version of relationships - that symbiotic being goes through everything. . .In Star Wars land all these relationships are needed to bring forth a greater good--and evil. Now there's a hint in the movie that there was a Sith lord who had the power to create life. But it's left unsaid: Is Anakin a product of a super-Sith who influenced the midicholorians to create him or is he simply created by the midichlorians to bring forth a prophecy, or was he created by the Force through the midichlorians? It's left up to the audience to decide. How he was born ultimately has no relationship to how he died, because in the end the prophecy is true: Balance comes back to the Force." Lucas also points out running themes of Vader's machine parts as his lost humanity and his favored weapon of strangulation as "Life is breath. The road to the Force is through the breath. Impotency is cutting off hands and legs and arms."
From George Lucas, Emperor of Star Wars Universe, Finishes His story by Terry Lawson, Detroit Free Press, May 06, 2005 (fair use excerpt):
"Everybody believed Star Wars was the story of Luke Skywalker," he says of the innocent young hero played by Mark Hamill in the first three films. "It wasn't. It was the story of Anakin, his father, who started as a hero and was then lured into the Dark Side by a powerful surrogate father, who convinced him that to save the wife he loved, and save the universe from the betrayal of the Jedi, he had to give in to his worst impulses -- the lust for power, greed, selfishness -- feelings all humans harbor. "You can buy this or not, but I actually felt compelled to get the story I always wanted to tell on the record. It was Darth Vader who made the sacrifice by killing the evil Emperor who had seduced him."
The amount of detail needed to tie together the whole saga in one's head can be overwhelming. I wonder if Obi-wan was that monkish to not realize Anakin's and Padme's relationship or if Luke and Leia ever find her grave or if Darth Vader mass murdering wipes out his guilt over Padme. But then I'm even thinking of Anakin's tragedy when listening to Bruce Springsteen's "Devil and Dust":
I got God [the Force] on my side
I'm just trying to survive
What if what you do to survive
Kills the things you love
Fear's a powerful thing
It can turn your heart black you can trust
It'll take your God filled soul
And fill it with devils and dust
Star Wars: prequels/sequels/series

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is for fans. While not quite as effective as the original BBC radio series, it is superior to the cheesy television series and incorporates much dialogue from the books.
It is at its most effective when it maintains the original's dry British humor, helped enormously by Martin Freeman, of The Office, and Bill Nighy in the flesh and the voices of Alan Rickman and Stephen Fry.
Except for John Malkovich staying campily villainous despite being surrounded by special effects, the American actors, particularly Zooey Deschanel with the lovely eyes, add no spark. Sam Rockwell tries too hard. The British seem better at seeing the humor in dealing with maddening bureaucracy stretched to a galactic scale.
Stay through the credits to see a delightful additional chapter from The Guide. (5/29/2005)

Puzzlehead is much like an extended Twilight Zone episode warning about man creating artificial life in his own flawed image.
It draws on myths from the doppelganger to the golem to Pygmalion and their psychological counterpart in Fight Club, to sci fi from Asimov's I, Robot rules to Star Trek's "Data" to darkly answering Philip Dick's question "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" (the basis for Blade Runner).
But this film makes battles about the Rise of the Machines more intensely personal than in The Matrix and even more intimate than in the new Battlestar Galactica. Several elements raise it up beyond other robot genre films - the look, sound and, to a lesser extent, the role of woman and procreation in this nihilistic future.
While filmed all in Brooklyn, the film looks like it is set in a violent, post-apocalyptic vaguely Eastern European dictatorship, both through the settings and the gritty and changing point-of-view cinematography and editing.
The sound design very effectively adds to the creepy mood. According to Q & A with the director and crew at the Tribeca Film Festival, problems with the original ambient sound necessitated a re-recording of the entire soundtrack, including the actors' voices. Capitalizing on the look, the actors' original voices were replaced by other voice-overs with added accents so that all the speaking has the slightly disconnected feel of dubbed over foreign films, adding to the uneasy theme of relations between man and machine. The superior music selections, mostly heard Dogme style played in situ, add to the tense atmosphere, from the Yiddish folk song "Dona Dona" (its chorus here is eerily ironic, usually translated as "But whoever treasures freedom/Like the swallow has learned to fly."), to Bach and Scarlatti played on a harpsichord as if it's an automatic player piano.
A unique element to the Frankenstein aspects of the story is the viewer's shifting sympathies between the creator and robot, usually based on how each relates to the woman, even as toward the end we scarily lose track of which one is the human.
Writer/director James Bai, in the Q & A, cited Daniel Keyes' ironic story/novel "Flowers for Algernon" (the basis for the movie Charly) as an influence, but I was struck more by the warning of human creators transmitting their intrinsically violent and emotional flaws. This deals with some of the same issues as Artificial Intelligence, but is to that film as Time Machine is to Primer.
It is being showcased by the Alfred Sloan Foundation as the latter film was, for creatively showing science in society. This film can definitely be marketed to fans of robot movies, sci fi and The Twilight Zone, but I doubt it will appeal more widely. (5/3/2005)

Elektra is ponderous and pretentious.
We see none of the flash that Jennifer Garner displays in Alias, as she's as grim as Ahnold's terminators, which is evidently due to being brought back from death. But as this movie is schizoid in appealing to boys and girls, it veers from Garner in limited leather and metal to brief perking up glimpses of her 13 Going On 30 charm in her mentor relationship with a young girl.
Kirsten Prout is quite good and breathes life into the film, but her role makes less sense than the girl power Buffy the Vampire Slayer. How come a woman warrior can fight so effectively draped in kimonos in Chinese movies but in Hollywood they have to wear skimpy leather and stilettos? I certainly hope that teen girls will go to see House of Flying Daggers (Shi mian mai fu) instead of this, as even the sword fights are mostly fast camera edits.
I was actually rooting more for Will Yun Lee's villain because he's quite appealing.
The lurid tattoos that come to life are at first a cool effect but then demonstrate just how lenient a PG-13 rating is these days, even though we don't see blood.
I suppose Goran Visnjic is there for eye candy for girls, but their relationship is perfunctorily chaste. Terence Stamp was border line campy as the usual kung fu teacher.
Besides unintentional laughs, there are two good lines, but they are self-consciously repeated. The ending only made sense as preparation for a serial. (1/25/2005)

The Incredibles is a rollicking movie that adults can enjoy without cover of children.
The illustration of the basic set up of super heroes driven into suburban hiding is very clever, though it does borrow a bit from similar issues explored both for humor and seriousness in Smallville.
While it does drag from time to time, particularly as the battle with the villain becomes a tad conventional for the genre, it's a lot of fun. The references to other movies, especially to James Bond villains and Star Wars, are fun to pick out, and I'm sure I missed other references to comic books and their movie permutations.
I haven't seen any of the Spykids films, but the climax seemed similar to those.
The voice-overs are terrific, particularly Holly Hunter and Craig T. Nelson as the parent superheroes and Jason Lee as their nemesis.
The dueling for the last word in the credits between Disney and Pixar is amusing, given their contractual negotiations.
How nice not to have any schmaltzy songs inflicted upon us in an animated feature!
The preceding Pixar short about a shorn lamb shown with the movie was corny and unoriginal, both in story and execution. (12/3/2004)

Bright Future (Akarui mirai) feels very much like a Sam Shepard play, with its themes of stifling fathers and rebelling sons and sibling responsibility between brothers, all suffused with irrational violence. There's even a continuing leitmotif of a cowboy Western musical riff when magic realism takes over from the unrelieved quotidian of men who work with the detritus of an almost post-apocalyptic-seeming society, from a laundry to an appliance recycling workshop, and condescended to by their biological and putative family members with more money and much nicer apartments.
The characters seem to need to strike out with either Raskolnikov-ian or manipulative acts of violence as existential acts to effect their environment ("acclimating to Tokyo" is how one character metaphorically puts it) to be sure they're alive or having an impact on the living.
The main characters, well-matched by Tadanobu Asano as the scarily controlling brother figure and Jô Odagiri as his even more depressed acolyte, are so alienated that the rigid others around them assume they are developmentally disabled.
I'm quite sure I didn't get anywhere near all the Godard-ian symbolism, from the production design of the characters' seedy living arrangements to the phosphorescent beauty of poisonous jellyfish, which are used beyond the frogs in Magnolia in entrancing and haunting images like Conrad's fascination of the abomination, amidst the many interesting bridges and canals that I didn't know Tokyo had.
I don't think it's a spoiler to say the conclusion about the future seems hopeless in a clouded fade into A Clockwork Orange-like, thrill-seeking gang of aimless young men wearing Che T-shirts, with a brightly hypocritical pop song playing on the soundtrack because it has little relation to the rest of the film anyway.
I haven't seen any other films written or directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa to know if I just saw a bad print or if the washed out, almost black-and-white, fuzzy digital-video-seeming look was intentional. (11/17/2004, revised 12/3/2004)

The Final Cut is a dark cross between Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, One-Hour Photo and Citizen Kane.
While this is an original screenplay by writer/director Omar Naim, it is faithful to a Philip Dick-type imagining of a techno-world in the not-so-distant future, with the bleakness, of both the excellent production design, cinematography, music and the story, only briefly mitigated. I like how gradually we see the explanations and issues of memories from many different view points and issues, while one lives and dreams and how one lives on in other people's memories, as a multiplier effect in touching other people and our own souls.
Just as the interviews of family recall the journalist trying to understand Kane, the fine scene is a nice visual play on his famous mystifying "Rosebud," ironically demonstrating that someone outside one's head can never understand what is significant and meaningful to an individual, what goes into making that unique personality.
While I'm not sure it's such a bombshell that eulogies --in this case as visually edited "re-memories" culled from brain implants--are whitewashes (as pointedly satirized by Tom Wolfe in Bonfire of the Vanities) and the political protesters seemed almost to be satirically out of a T. C. Boyle novel, James Caviezel's seriousness keeps them out of Unabomber territory. One awkward miscast is Mira Sorvino.
As if it's not already obvious why a Robin Williams would be attracted to a blonde bombshell, another layer of motivation is added, but it just makes absolutely no sense why she was drawn to him. Not only does this seem yet another instance of film's older man/younger woman tendencies, the character would have made a lot more sense as an older woman with a past.
The effective multiple screens showing the editing of "re-memories" may be difficult to distinguish on the eventual DVD, but I wasn't sure if the blown-up look was from projection issues.
Unfortunately, it was only playing in a Times Square theater, so I had to put up with the noisy audience members that area attracts. (10/19/2004)

Primer starts out innocently like a docu-drama and the first part covers some of those same financial, friendship and entrepreneurial issues as computer geek engineers work out of one of the partner's garage to perfect an invention.
But gradually, in this antiseptic atmosphere of white shirts, electrical experiments and tweaking mechanics, every human emotion, virtually as every seven deadly sin, except sloth, and beyond, starting with greed, takes them over. Without any explanation to the audience, we gradually figure out that we're seeing a cleverer, low budget Paycheck or what Ground Hog Day played for laughs and an original Outer Limits episode did for irony (I didn't see The Butterfly Effect to see how it also dealt with time changes).
Rather this is an attempt to seriously examine the philosophical issues of chaos theory, the time/space continuum and how inventions can't be divorced from human frailties, both mental and physical. Shane Carruth, as the lead actor/writer/director/producer is a true auteur--and could therefore give his nerd a wife and kid-- but perhaps an outside editor could have helped make the permutations a bit clearer as I didn't quite follow the intersections with outside characters.
I followed enough to get caught up in the anxiety and suspense of each iteration. It was amusing that I was the only woman in the audience. (10/17/2004)

Shaun of the Dead is a delightfully funny satire of 28 Days Later. . . specifically, and of zombie movies in general.
Taking place simultaneous to 28 Days, but in a more suburban location, it both spoofs that film and provides yet another alternative, and much more amusing, ending, just when you think the joke has played out and writer/director Edgar Wright has literally backed his characters into a corner.
Not only is the script laugh out loud funny, but the comic actors produce giggles on sight as they play their slackers completely straight and cheerfully well-meaning and foible-consistent throughout as they learn something about themselves, even as it pokes fun at this genre that usually has a nebbish rise up to be a hero.
The loud musical choices add to the ironic merriment, even if some are used as complicated background set-ups for one-liners; also funny is a cameo by Coldplay. (10/1/2004)

Code 46 takes elements from many different sources -- the sci fi of genetic determinism explored in Gattaca, the memory erasures mocked in Men in Black and fought in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the manipulative interpretive underpinnings of futuristic society as shown in Minority Report, etc. --to create a believable future of Orwellian global businesses and the haves vs. have-nots they promote.
Michael Winterbottom takes this beyond the usual asexual 1950's sci fi by creating a full environment of compromised people trying to be real human beings as richly as he did in the very different period movie The Claim.
The settings created out of elements of today's world cities and extensions of today's technology create a much more realistic mise en scene than the casting does.
Tim Robbins towers over the child-like Samantha Morton (what was the point of her having had a Brazilian wax job?), so that his feelings almost seem more protectively paternal than romantic as he risks all for her. Despite the breathy voice-overs, we are carried along for a futuristic "24 Hours From Tulsa"-love story, though their second love scene raises disturbing issues of what is a consenting adult with conflicting programmed mind vs. emotional responses, in uneasy comparison to the gentleness of their first encounter.
Yeah it's a cute joke having Mick Jones do "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" in a karaoke bar, but the soundtrack selections and moody music by Joshua Hyams are much better than that humor. (9/6/2004)

I was thinking that the target audience for I, Robot was 12-year-old boys who have not read the original science fiction by Isaac Asimov that posited The 3 Laws or seen any science fiction movies, but surely even they have seen at least a Matrix or a Terminator movie where machines take over so that what are supposed to be climactic scenes here of robot revolution are just been-there-seen-that.
Will Smith and some interesting dialog about robot-prejudice, that I'm willing to bet was inserted by the usually serious Academy Award-winning writer Akiva Goldsman, save the movie from seeming like a total pastiche of other movies.
It is a bit much just how much music video director Alex Proyas uses the post-Ali Smith as pin-up fodder (maybe this is supposed to be the motivation for women ticket buyers?), let alone product endorser - he actually points out a pair of Converse sneakers several times to the camera, though today's Wall Street Journal claims that a promotional fee was not paid. It's also a continuing hypocrisy in the ratings system that Smith gets to utter many "sh*t"s in a PG-13 movie while Fahrenheit 9/11 got an "R," let alone the indie movies that have to carry "NC-17."
Bridget Moynahan does herself no favor in appearing opposite a robot with a soul, as Alan Tudyk's "Sonny" out acts her throughout the movie. While I suppose the target audience isn't looking at her acting abilities, would that the director had considered the minds of other potential fannies in the seats. (7/28/2004)

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the most enjoyable and entertaining of the series so far.
Director Alfonso Cuarón and adapter Steven Kloves just assume we've read the books and seen the other movies so focuses on new main plot points with little time spent on explanations and side stories. So while this not a good entry point for neophytes, it's a barrel of laughs and excitement for fans.
The kid stars and co-stars are growing suitably along with the story line and I certainly hope they can continue with each movie, as their characters fit like gloves.
The adults continue to be a stellar representation of British talent, though they ham it up a bit too much, with the addition of David Thewlis as the first nice guy defense of the dark arts teacher who surprisingly could have seemed a bit more tormented about his monthly problem, Emma Thompson playing the clairvoyant as just plain batty, Michael Gambon a bit too twinkly in replacing Richard Harris as Dumbledore, and Timothy Spall literally as a rat.
The very long, and visually delightful, closing credits show the extent of the special effects, but we do see them all on the screen. Well, not all the long list of accountants and the masseur.
And they needed Cynthia Weil to come up with song lyrics that are taken straight from the witches of MacBeth?
As it was a few weeks until my family could get organized to see it, the print we saw was pale and had poor sound, which made the noisy and noting-the-obvious all-ages audience particularly distracting. Though at the end of the 141 minutes, the kid in back of me (and inside of me, too) protested to his parents: "That wasn't long!" (7/6/2004)

Van Helsing has excellent production design, music, sound editing, and special effects that should rattle the pre-teens it is aimed at and would probably have given me nightmares at that age but these days it's just rated PG-13.
Both Kate Beckinsale and Hugh Jackman manage to do blue-screen acting within clunky costumes, but it's Richard Roxburgh's Count Dracula who really stands out as sexily sinister. One could certainly imagine his prolific fertility with his three model-pretty brides. Australia just keeps putting out these hunks who can do any accent.
The sidekick is the silliest yet for such movies; even the ones in Lara Croft are more interesting.
What a shame that Stephen Sommers wrote and directed as I just kept thinking what Joss Whedon (the life-force behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel) would have done with the material instead of this literal and visual recycling of the old Frankenstein and Wolfman movies, etc., that were tired by the time Abbott and Costello satirized them.
What was that about Van Helsing having been at Masada? That must have been in the days when his name was Abraham, before this movie for no particular reason changed it to Gabriel. (5/28/2004)

Kill Bill, Volume 2 confirmed for me that I will never, in my entire life, ever be able to see as many movies as Quentin Tarantino has already seen.
While Kill Bill, Volume 1 convinced me that I would not in fact want to see the zillions of samurai, chop-sockey, anime, etc. genre films that he had seen and was joyously reenacting in every chapter, Volume 2, a.k.a. the second half of really one movie, is an extensive tribute to movies which I have seen, from John Ford and Sergio Leone Westerns to Billy Wilder comedies and noirs and on and on. In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, the voluble Tarantino made his case as a film historian by claiming that Uma Thurman is his visual muse like Josef von Sternberg's inspiration was Marlene Dietrich, but that was just one calculated explanation for the older demographic who watches PBS as their violent collaboration may make Scorsese/DeNiro comparisons more apt.
In Volume 2 the other movie references are astounding and breathtaking -- every note of music (the extensive actual samples and the connectors by Robert Rodriguez), every setting, prop and article of clothing onscreen, camera angle, actor cast, through all the nostalgic credits, let alone every clip any character is watching on their TV, is a loving tribute to another film* (we will have to wait for the super deluxe collector's edition DVD that combines Volumes 1 and 2 to communicate the footnotes with multiple eggs).
Yet it manages not to be a pastiche or a parody, but a masterful, post-modern work of art culminating in a passionate expression of love of movies as the ultimate bed time story (as accompanied by one of my favorite songs, Shivaree's creepy take on "Good Night Moon"), even if it cannot stand on its own to be enjoyed by the kind of person who only sees a couple of movies a decade. Tarantino may be a motormouth but he is in complete control of all these references, cutting them up like a collage and lovingly transforming them within his vision.
To the disappointment of the kid in the back row who didn't shut up, Volume 2 has far less sock 'em violent set pieces, cartoonish or otherwise, than the earlier chapter, and far more very funny humor and marvelous dialog, especially as delivered by an iconic David Carradine (others will connect him to this film via the TV series Kung Fu, but I first loved him in the TV version of Shane, which is also recalled here). From the planes of his craggy visage, to Uma's gleaming eyes and lips, to the cinematography of Robert Richardson, this is also a strikingly beautiful film.
It is certainly not necessary to have seen Volume 1 to appreciate the second part, but that adds to the power of the unexpectedly cathartic change that The Bride undergoes on her quest, redolent of The Wizard of Oz.
Tarantino emotionally yet ironically makes the case that violent movies are fantasies that don't turn people into killers, rather they can bring families together.
And now I do want to catch up on samurai movies!(4/30/2004)

Hellboy is a cute entertainment with expensive special effects, including elaborate underground bunkers on several continents, as befits the attention of a writer/director, Guillermo del Toro, who started his career in the make-up/effects departments. Though stuck in a complicated Nazi-creation myth out of Indiana Jones, the funny and snappy dialogue seems to take a lot of its attitude from the Joss Whedon universe of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and particularly from Angel, but lacks the depth and poignancy of both. The romance ironically recalls Beauty and the Beast, as the titular tormented hero of both is played by Ron Perlman, with a view on the nature vs. nurture of demons that is straight out of Charmed. Selma Blair, usually the goody goody, is surprisingly effective as a Goth-like freak who seems to be guesting from the X Men series. In a twist, the ingénue here is a guy, Rupert Evans, who the empathic freak, speaking in David Hyde Pierce's voice, identifies as truly "pure of heart." While I liked the conceit that each time the monster is killed it replicates from the ashes, it looks recycled from The Matrix Revolutions, but down in the subway instead of outer space. The score matches the action and the snatches of songs are atypical for the genre, including Tom Waits. Stay through the credits for an additional joke. (4/3/2004)

Robot Stories is a collection of four thematically related short films, written, produced, directed and, in at least one, acted by Gregory Pak. They are humanistic Outer Limits episodes with the usual ending twist. The first two particularly rise above the genre with touching insight into human and machine interaction, the fourth almost succeeds, and the third just seems like the usual android of the future amidst the humans, similar to "Data"'s experiences on Star Trek: The Next Generation. One unique resonance is the preponderance of Asian-American actors, which adds a subtle layer of commentary about "the model minority" with the pressures on them to succeed that can only be met by machine perfection, perhaps leading to the pressure to opt for tekkie, rather than artistic--like filmmaking--field. The movie concludes with a sweet tribute to a friend or relative of a worker on the film who died at the World Trade Center. (3/7/2004)

Paycheck is yet another adaptation of a Philip Dick short story that tones down his political criticism and cynicism to make a sci fi adventure flick, this time pretty much as an expensive and clever McGyver episode. You can tell how this is expanded from a story where the hero had five items/clues and now he has 20. Ben Affleck is a bland Ken Doll of a hero, though Uma Thurman has almost as much spunk as she did in Kill Bill, Volume 1. As a John Woo movie, of course the chase scenes are the best part. But the fight scenes are simply perplexing -- uh, why does Affleck's work-out consist of electronic samurai stick fighting such that when the poorly-aiming bad guys all come at him with guns Uma throws him a stick to pick them off? While I did see the movie on a scratchy print with tinny sound, I don't think that explained the confusingly bad continuity in the hair and make-up such that I thought they had been time-traveling at some tropical vacation in between scenes. (1/19/2004)

Lord of the Rings: Return of the King is a terrific demonstration of CGI and special effects made to serve a thrilling story of good vs. evil.
I came in fully expecting that the "Return of the King" aspect would be the story line that would draw me in the most, but found that was given short shrift with a lot of that left out from the book, given over more to cinemascope-worthy battles that are the best since the early Star Wars movies.
If I hadn't read the book recently, let alone re-read the appendices several times to be sure I was getting the prophesies and genealogy straight, I would never have figured out what was going on with Aragorn as the heir to Isildur, as much of what he does to convince doubters is missing. I also was a bit disappointed in Viggo not quite living up to LOTR: The Two Towers, but I don't know if it was his acting or the dialog, especially in his "rally the troops" a.k.a. "another Crispin's Day speech," or if I found his traveling down the Paths of the Dead less frightening, and less motivated, than in the book. His Elvish-language song at the coronation was a nice touch.
Second to the battles, the lighting of the bonfires along the mountain tops was both gorgeous and exciting.
I am relieved that Eowyn and Faramir's romance shows will show up in the DVD because the sudden appearance of Arwen with an approving father in Minas Tirith is simply a befuddled resolution to the triangular tensions. I am sympathetic, however, about having to leave some things out in a rushed conclusion due to the length as I did have trouble sitting through to the credits, what with the extensive previews tacked on as well.
But the Gollum/Smeagol vs. Frodo and Sam competition was instead the more gripping, perhaps because the power of evil is so intensely represented by the close-up interior and exterior struggles of these almost-four characters trekking to Mordor.
I didn't mind the multiple endings that others have complained of as I respected the loyalty to the source material.
Howard Shore's music was martial without being bombastic, and Annie Lennox's vocalization fit in surprisingly in the over-the-credits song.(12/28/2003)

The Matrix: Revolutions devolves the trilogy into conventional sci fi, with very expensive special effects that go on and on.
I would have liked more imagination -- the evil machines sure looked like The Borg Queen (with a similar concluding plot twist from Star Trek), while the good guys' machines looked like the gangly mechanical attackers from one of the Star Wars movies so I kept losing track amidst the extensive blasting which blaster I was supposed to be rooting for.
The romance, which is my favorite part of the series as a humanistic element, is at least still there, just way reduced to a tragic level I appreciated best when I was 12 years old, complete with bombastic musical theme. I almost did sigh at "Trinity's" declaration: "Six hours ago I told Merovingian I would do anything for you. You know what's changed in six hours? Absolutely nothing."
Not that there's anything wrong with appealing to pre-teens like that these days. The music finally picks up at the conclusion, being redolent of "Carmina Burana," probably to recall the orgy in Zion scene from The Matrix Reloaded.
All in all, it was better than Starship Troopers. (11/12/2003)

As long as I was in the multiplex, I dropped in on Kill Bill, Volume 1. As it apparently didn't have the same number of endless movie previews as Revolutions I came in the middle of Chapter 1, but had read enough about the plot to follow along and I don't think I missed any key scenes. I was curious to see if the woman-on-woman violence would have some kind of feminist empowerment theme, but it was more the way guys make woman-on-woman pornography, indicated by the frequent epithet of "bitch" that the antagonists threw at each other.
Each scene is evidently a comic tribute* to a different director, movie, or style, of which I only knew a tiny fraction of the references, such as to Japanese anime and the music of spaghetti westerns. At least when the violence was at its raunchiest bloodiest, the screen went black-and-white. I was relieved that the two women next to me who had vociferously objected to my sitting where they had put their coats and commented non-stop loudly through the entire movie were also repulsed by the extreme violence. While the violence is highly stylized and cartoonish, it goes way beyond Itchy and Scratchy, let alone Roadrunner vs. Wil E. Coyote and I had to turn away many times.
The music selections are cool, but I missed most of those references as well. (11/15/2003)

*Doubtless on the Web there's various guides to the iconography of both volumes of Kill Bill. Particularly helpful is "Charting the Tarantino Universe" by Dave Kehr in The New York Times 4/11/2004.

I went to see Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines at the recommendation of The Scion, who I had introduced to the "T" series.
I bet I was the only one there for the continuing story, as I was the only who seemed to get the comments and jokes in reference to the past movies so I guess they hadn't seen the other "T" movies. Arnold's lines were pretty much just replay references to the older movies.
I'm not sure I got all the plot points in the quiet dialogs, such as they were, in the lulls between car crashes -- sent back to do what, when, by whom?
And while the vehicle chases were now construction cranes and fire trucks, it was just metal upon noisy metal upon more noisy metal. It's becoming common in sci fi these days to have the best way for an alien enemy to infiltrate humans is in disguise as a gorgeous blonde, let alone an indestructible one.
But what made the movie for me was the wonderful in context line in the midst of one counter-attack: Nick Stahl as the grown-up "John Connor" looking in wonder at Claire Danes: "You remind me of my mother." (8/31/2003)

28 Days Later. . . is a gritty, contemporary re-interpretation of the nexus of the genres of intellectual-post-apocalypse humans-messing-with-nature sci fi (like Omega Man and On the Beach) and bloody zombie horror (including pod people), as well as virus threats (like Andromeda Strain) that are no longer idle speculation. Vanilla Sky tried to capture a similar mise en scene with the opening dream scene in a deserted Times Square, but that was about the star from those opening shots. Director Danny Boyle uses skinny accidental hero Cillian Murphy amidst scans of the freakishly deserted London (there's a thanks in the credits to all the officers who held back the city traffic), while John Murphy's music plays up the fear, confusion, and the unknown.
Alex Garland's script is particularly insightful about human reactions, feelings, and relationships amidst disaster, especially how tropic we are towards hope and connection, such that the grim line "Women are about the future" put a chill down my spine. The actions and appearances of the trustworthy and the untrustworthy can seem identical visually without context, making judgments instantaneously necessary and risky (for us and the characters)--is that a passionate kiss or an attacking bite? We really care about the individuals unpredictably meeting their fates, as we're given just enough background to make them believable and real, as it comes full circle on the issue of being humane.
Though there's no big-name stars, I recognized the excellent actors from Brit TV mini-series (and did have a little problem with the accents and slang now and then). The ending, that feels like its in color in contrast to rest that seems to be more in shades of black-and-white and bloody red, does seem a bit tacked on, though a key clue is introduced just before the climax.
The digital video was occasionally blurry in the print I saw; I don't know if that was intentional or if the DVD will look better, but it's a very visually communicative film. I'll wait for the U.S. DVD to see the new ending. (updated 8/2/2003)

There was a lot of rationalization about comic book fandom when it was announced that Ang Lee, with an expertise primarily in exquisite family films chose to direct The Hulk.
He chose excellent actors who strive for realistic emoting, and the family interactions, as uniquely dysfunctional as they are, were the most interesting to me -- though many in the audience kept shouting out during the exposition "Bring on the Hulk already!" A good portion of the plot is even told during the opening credits to try and get as much out of the way for such restless viewers as possible. Those folks seemed to like it when the Hulk finally does appear, but I thought its bounding CGI ridiculousness blew-up more than the furniture.
Three authors are credited for the screenplay, but I think that's probably just because that's the Writer's Guild maximum as this feels like the horse that was written by committee and turned out a camel, with almost desperate repeat references to King Kong. No one could actually say "T'was beauty killed the beast." so they could leave open the possibility of a sequel.
The flashback memories and contemporary confrontations with father Nick Nolte were interesting motivators, especially for the mostly non-verbal Hulk.
Funny how my reactions to the use of the military against the Hulk and his crushing of tanks and planes have gotten more complex since the current war as I now think of the young soldiers following orders who are inside, even if they are CGI too. I guess the Hulk should now be considered a WMD. (6/22/2003)

I didn't see The Matrix Reloaded until the fourth day early show, and it was still sold out enough that I had to squeeze into the third row, along with the babies, toddlers and little kids there despite the "R" rating, and next to the guy with serious sleep apnea snoring problems.
While I re-watched The Matrix to bone up (and get re-enthralled -- I was just telling our IT guys at work when the whole computer system crashed all day that they needed to visualize the circuits connecting), I haven't yet read through the philosophical explanations at the official site, let alone listened to the discussions with spiritual authors on National Public Radio, or yet watched the background short films in the Animatrix collection, so I had to ask my son (who was at the first 11 pm pre-opening day showing) for some explanations that I just didn't get -- I hadn't even gotten that Neo is an anagram for One.
What I did get, besides the return of fun fight scenes and visually complicated sets, is that Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Ann Moss still look really good together and that Neo's and Trinity's love anchors the tale (and provides for droll grist with villains and prophets).
Laurence Fishburne's Morpheus shrinks a bit in stature because we now see him in the fuller context of the politics of Zion, the last human city, and its relationship to the Matrix, plus entanglement in a jealous triangle (one of several going on). Because an original element in the Wachowskis future universe, compared to most sci fi movies, in addition to choices, is human emotions.
Doubtless there's already a few PhD theses on the strong role of women in the Matrix universe -- what will they make of the fact that Trinity never gets on top now that we finally get a discreet sex scene? No ambiguous falling in love with androids in this war with machines, like in Blade Runner, but rather Zion celebrates human sensuality, complete with a multi-ethnic, city-wide prayer session that ends in a rave to the beat of taiko drums with a touch of Carmina Burana (if I could be sure that those frequently recurring drums were on the soundtrack I'd get it, but Warner Brothers prefers marketing to teen-age boys with pedestrian metal tracks from which only the closing Dave Matthews Band re-mix stands out). Interestingly, the women all seem to find Salome's seven veils to dance in, while the men are still wearing their grubby long johns (not that Keanu looks bad in those).
Yes, we have the return of Bullet Time and balletically choreographed martial arts, which works well except for the connecting shots where the CGI turns the actors too much into cartoons. The battle with the multiplying Mr. Smiths is a particular hoot. The freeway chase is noteworthy more for its length than originality of strategies, partly because I couldn't figure out how the Sentinels or the Albino Twins could be destroyed, though its second half turn-around did have me ducking.
One weakness is, as the ever welcome Harold Perrineau (of Oz) comments, Neo does spend too much time "doing his Superman thing" with flying heroics that could either be a tribute to those movies or just plain retreads.
Stay through the ten minutes of credits for a preview of The Matrix Revolutions, as Reloaded ends with a serial-style cliffhanger. (5/18/2003)

Here are fair use excerpts from the commentary 'May I?' and 'The Matrix': Why my kids won't be seeing the latest R-rated blockbuster by Dale Buss in The Wall Street Journal on 5/23/2003:

"Why the R rating? Certainly the barrage of elegantly choreographed martial-arts violence is one reason; but that stuff is merely a modern, stylized version of the barroom fighting in a cowboy film, rough but understandable. Besides, without it there's no movie. The real cocklebur is a gratuitous scene near the beginning of this video game--er, movie--that intercuts a paganistic orgy with private, full-flesh sex between the hero and heroine, Neo and Trinity, complete with pulsating drums in the background. . . .
So while teenage boys, religious syncretists and dime-store philosophers might be in love with The Matrix Reloaded it isn't all that popular with some parents. The R rating and one sex scene have forced us to make an unpleasant choice: Forbid our youngsters from seeing the movie that their friends are raving about or let the coarser side of popular culture claim one more little victory. Understandably, the topic of movie-going--or not-going--ruined no fewer than three of our dinner hours last week. . .
The Dionysian vignette from "The Matrix Reloaded"--a version of what the Israelites were doing in "The Ten Commandments" before Moses came down from Mount Sinai--is bad enough in itself, but it's even more affrontive for being kicked off with a quasi-prayer, part of the alleged spiritual depth of the movie. . .
The point is that the sex scene isn't the least bit necessary to tell this story. The whole "Matrix" series is supposed to become this decade's Star Wars trilogy. But did those epics suffer from the lack of a scene in which Hans Solo and Princess Leia couple in the back of a spaceship while Wookies cavort lasciviously outside? . . .
Naturally, nothing in the limitless pre-opening PR for The Matrix Reloaded hinted at this razor blade in the apple. So it caught many parents unawares. I don't remember its being mentioned in the Time cover story, or in the new Heineken ad where Trinity goes airborne in the interest of serving up a couple of cold ones. . . There was a time when parents could trust the media's role in the public square. That included an understanding that R-rated movies wouldn't be aimed at kids. If a movie targeted teenage boys, parents could assume that the sexual content might push the envelope--but certainly not burst it open."

I then submitted in response this letter to the editor to the Opinion Journal Online:
As the mother of teen and just past teen boys, I was so angry at Dale Buss's "Taste Commentary", "'May I?' and 'The Matrix': Why my kids won't be seeing the latest R-rated blockbuster" on May 23rd that I went to see the movie a second time to make sure we had seen the same movie. I realized it wasn't the movie that was different, but the gender lens of the parent.
I chaperoned my mortified then-13 year old son to a half-empty matinee of the first Matrix where the only other female in the audience was on the same maternal patrol duty. I found the closing declaration of love and the kiss one of the most satisfying in cinema. Clearly, other women in the country agreed, as the two packed matinees of Matrix Reloaded I've attended were easily fifty per cent female, of all ages. There was an audible release of breath from the women at the opening casually intimate scene that demonstrated Neo's and Trinity's continuing couplehood.
I saw Matrix Reloaded as inspiring to girls and boys alike where, unlike most rigid, emotionless, sterile sci fi universes, the women of Zion are equal soldiers, captains, and counselors while losing none of their femininity, sensuality, and power to inspire loyalty and jealousy. It is key that Zion is full of non-machine feelings, and the women are constantly trying to get the men to deal with all those complex feelings.
Not only did I think the sex scene was absolutely necessary to the story, I thought it was too circumspect; I was rooting for Trinity to be as active in bed as in battle, yet another philosophical lesson boys could garner from the Matrix series.
The point is made several times that what makes Neo not just powerful as The One for this generation but a unique One for all iterations is his love for Trinity. He is inspired not by a need for an idealized lover on a platonic pedestal, which Buss seems to think is more fitting to be viewed by teen boys, but by a passionately shared commitment to each other and a cause. Which is a much more satisfying model than the superficial love 'em and leave 'em bimbo bedding in PG-13 action flicks marketed to boys.
While I do not think the movie ratings system is consistent or clear to parents, and I was taken aback by the very young children attending Matrix Reloaded with their families, I think it is very much acceptable to today's PG-13 audience.

I'll call it X2: X Men United, but I don't remember seeing the subtitle in the credits; I more remember the key letter in Fox network constantly turning into "X Men" during the barrage of ads on the TV. Turns out I should have re-viewed the prequel X Men because this picks up exactly where the last one left off and there's many references to previous happenings (hmm, what was that about those scars?) -- but then I was the oldest person at the morning showing.
Director/story writer Bryan Singer has learned the lesson of successful comic book/super heroes' movies that it's the relationships stupid, though the kids in the audience do get restless during the scenes and dialogue that appealed to me (like the mutants looking longingly at warm family photographs with one who is about to "come out" to his parents) more than the predictable special effects (after all, what were we supposed to think would happen to a super secret hideaway built under a huge concrete dam?).
There are a lot of good actors slumming here (Brian Cox's and Hugh Jackman's accents slip at the start but get stronger), giving the sidelong glances, sexual temptations, and repartee more gravitas than they were written with. Jackman also committed a lot of time to a trainer and nutritionist to develop that non-CGI body that fills the screen quite charismatically -- and aids the joke when he sardonically explains his teaching role at the school for the gifted.
While the women get crucial plot points, the actresses don't have a lot to do; not much Famke Janssen can do with her telekinetic Phoenix power but scowl or Halle Berry cloud over her eyes as the weather gets Storm-ized. I'm sure these women would have had more ideas about mutant foreplay to respond to the ongoing guy-to-guy running query to Iceman on how he and Rogue (of the life-force squeezing power) manage their budding romance than "We're working on it."
Alan Cummings leaving everyone in the blue dust of his teleporting mutant is fun and cool (and I enjoyed his repetition of his origins that reminded me of a running gag in Due South.
I did find a couple of plot points confusing, but could connect my own dots. The music never stops pounding, but then it was written by the editor. (5/10/2003)

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers uses the best of contemporary and traditional movie magic for a rousing, romantic adventure tale of good vs. evil, loyalty and love.
From touches of Ray Harryhausen's Jason and the Argonauts that were among my favorite movie movements as a child as the Ents and a couple of the monsters are charmingly hokey, to the seamlessly multiplying armored, costumed, hairy, made-up extras to the actor/rotoscoped combined astonishment of the twisted Gollum/Smeagle, it's all at the service of the story.
Peter Jackson and company are wonderful at both closely hewing to the story yet skillfully cutting judiciously and adding clarifications that are in the spirit of the original, including using the appendix explanation of Aragorn's love affair with Arwen (incorrectly described as "doomed" by one critic -- well, if an eventual mortal life of 50 years together and four kids is "doomed" then many of us are doomed!)
The mutual attraction with Eowyn is fit nicely into the "to be continued" cliffhanger as I think the double X chromosome viewers are left as eagerly awaiting the conclusion of what happens to Arwen and Aragorn as what happens to the Ring.
David Wenham makes us almost forget Sean Bean as his late brother, and I just figured out that's Hugo Weaving with quite a hair weave as Arwen's disapproving dad.
I'll take this thrilling Battle of Helm's Deep over Saving Private Ryan for re-watching (with the second release of the DVD for the deleted scenes). No wonder there's now tours of the places in New Zealand the movie was shot because the scenery is breathtakingly beautiful, even if some of it is mattes.
That's Sheila Chandra vocalizing in the effective music.
And I've managed to not even mention how absolutely hunky exciting heroic Viggo is (and I've thought so since at least Walking on the Moon), so I'll let London Times do that! (1/20/2003)

"Women are flocking to heroic epics - our critic explains why": Lord & Ladies by Barbara Ellen in London Times, January 10, 2003

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets has better special effects than the first one.
I lost count at six teams of special effect companies, including Industrial Light and Magic, but doubtless each one had different responsibilities, whether the wonderful Hogwarts Hall, or the spiders, or the flue powder travel, or the flying car, etc.
Even at three hours not all the story details can be told, so the actors have to quickly mouth a lot of exposition.
Too bad the excellent Brit actors are reined in, even Kenneth Branaugh.
Only the red-haired kid emotes much.
At least the music is less bombastically intrusive than the last one. So even with all the whiz bang it still isn't as magical as The Wizard of Oz.(12/24/2002)

Solaris is virtually literally about how men are from Mars and women are from Venus.
As a Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in space, including a fantasy child, with the "solaris" space phenomenon replacing alcohol as a loosening agent, we see that a husband mostly remembers seduction and sex from his marriage, while his wife remembers how he didn't listen or communicate.
The stream of noisy guys who walked out of my audience were clearly expecting more of a sci fi adventure with George Clooney, not that the isolation of space would be an intellectual metaphor. But this is Clooney's best, and most emotional, role since E.R..
The bare, metallic environment of a space station leaves the characters with only emotions and memories to rely on, with fatal/sanity consequences as the past is in effect re-enacted over and over.
The rich, gleaming cinematography and changing, pulsing, ambient sound are important in maintaining the tension.
I do now want to read the novel that Steven Soderbergh based this on and see the earlier, Russian movie version that gets shown on cable. (12/14/2002)

Taken is a television mini-series, but I'm ranking it here with the best of sci fi movies.
With commercials on the Sci Fi Channel, it's a twenty-hour epic shown over ten episodes, all written by the co-executive producer, Leslie Bohem (though it's the "Steven Spielberg Presents" co-producer who gets the titular attention), and each directed separately. This may be the first sci fi family epic, in the James Michener fashion (whose books also made great lengthy TV mini-series). This humanizes the conspiracy theories in The X Files within the context of changing politics, romance, generational conflicts, and tragic flaws, many handed down parent to child.
There's a nice nod to TV sci fi fans that virtually all the smaller character roles are played by actors from Sci Fi series -- there's "Darla" (Julie Benz) from Angel, "Crazy Eddie" and "Joshua" from First Wave, "Joshua" (Kevin Durand) from Dark Angel, a recurring character alien from Stargate: SG1 as a sort of Werner von Braun, Eric Close from Now and Again, Matt Frewer from Max Headroom, but stretching their acting muscles. Or maybe they're available because this is filmed in Canada like most sci fi series are.
Though I always find it amusing that aging make-up, no matter how good, doesn't include weight gains.
The Grouch watched a few minutes and already noticed with surprise that there's more sex than in most sci fi; I would say more complicated romantic relationships helps keep the enthrallment level high.
I watched the first 10 hours in a marathon and was still gripped at the end of the second 10.
The ending certainly leaves open a follow-up.
That's Emmylou Harris singing the closer "Just Before it Gets Dark." The song was produced by Buddy Miller and written by Bohem. It is not currently commercially available, but if miniseries theme songs are eligible for Emmy's, this should be nommed. (updated 12/24/2002)

I was about the last one in the country to go to see Signs so I guess that's why the only other people in the audience kept talking through it.
The first two-thirds is a cinematographically lovely homage, practically frame by frame and certainly scene by scene, to Hitchcock's The Birds, in making the quotidian scary. Though instead of one hunk, we get two in Mel Gibson and Jacquin Phoenix, and no statuesque blonde.
The last third steals mightily from every 1950's alien invasion sci fi movie, and some of those are classic favorites of mine. Maybe Shyamalan figures no one watches black and white movies anymore or maybe it's just more homage.
Either way, I was bored. (9/29/2002)

I went to see Minority Report as a Philip Dick fan, not for Tom Cruise.
As soon as I heard he was cast, I knew he was either miscast or the movie would substantially change the original story. Ed Harris would have been a brilliant choice for Dick's intent in showing a mid-life crisis of faith with bureaucracy, and more logically setting up the conflict with his older (Max von Sydow as his usual craggy self) and younger (terrifically aggressive Colin Farrell) competitors.
In Dick's story the titular discovery is a shocking revelation of the bankruptcy of policy-making behind bureaucratic intent, whereas here it's just a means to an end for Cruise's character to clear his name. Instead we get an action story that grafts Dick's story outline onto a tribute to George Lucas's brilliant student thesis project THX-1138, which he himself later expanded into a feature film; I always cite those films as the best visual analysis of bureaucracy. I guess Spielberg wasn't satisfied that we never really knew what the politics were in Lucas's films so he provides explicit reasons via a personal rather than systemic conspiracy theory for the chase and an optimistic conclusion.
On its own, we get a rippling Hollywood chase movie with a soupcon of the old The X Files paranoia, now newly relevant about our Justice Dept. arresting people, and even several laughs.
The cinematography for the future is wonderfully metallic and there's so many clever CGI's that the long credits list three "in memoriam"s to colleagues.
Lois Smith is very effective as a cynical inventor, reminding me of the last time an older woman made a key appearance in a sci fi epic, Outland in a role not necessarily written for a woman.
John Williams's music is interferingly bombastic. (7/5/2002)

Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones was really, really loud, which helped to drown out the noisy kids. Because several weeks into the run the four screens playing it hourly were still quite crowded with an old-fashioned genuinely family audience of all ages (though Spider-Man at less screens was completely sold-out with a waiting line of a similar audience).
And shucks if the opening lettering and music didn't choke me up with nostalgia (including for Mel Brooks' Space Balls).
I did like the action scenes with all the whooshes, even if they weren't particularly original. But I had to keep reminding myself that Samuel Jackson, The Scion's classmate Natalie Portman (the beading designer on her costumes deserved the prominent listing in the credits), Temuera Morrison (so combustible in Once Were Warriors), Ewen MacGregor (hey, why does this Jedi have to be celibate?), etc. are terrific actors because I couldn't figure out why they were so stiff and uninteresting. Yeah I did watch some stupid series on Pax TV I think it was because Hayden Christensen had caught my eye, so I sat there pretending I cared about his romance as much as I had about Han's and Leia's, cause I really did with the original trilogy.
I did like the little precursor information for fans -- like of the aunt and uncle on Tatooine as a young couple, a cameo by the evil emperor, and the trick on our decades-old expectations of who and what the clones would be.
I'm not sure I could sit through this a second time, but it does pay to see the effects on the big screen. (5/28/2002)

No Such Thing is a post-apocalyptic "Beauty and the Beast."
Though Hal Hartley's the-future-is-now satirical plot was probably written and filmed before 9/11 and got overtaken by the real unthinkable happening in New York City and media wars that are almost beyond parody, it is still a wistful meditation on the nature of humanity.
With his opening line resonant of Moby Dick -- "I'm not the monster I once was."-- Robert John Burke effectively and entertainingly uses his Kenneth Nordine-like voice to project The Monster's existential emotions and eternal intelligence under complex make-up.
Sarah Polley's innocent ingénue is intentionally out of place in NYC -- but works well with The Monster in Iceland and beyond. Two old broads, Helen Mirren and Julie Christie, get to strut their stuff in atypical roles for Polley to also play off of.
Michael Spiller's cinematography is gorgeous, particularly in Iceland.
Hartley's own music is mesmerizing throughout and it’s probably not unintentional that the leit motif is reminiscent of The Twilight Zone theme.
While I got that the climactic scene with The Monster is an ironic parallel to the earlier medical miracle that saved Polley's character, I'm not 100% sure if the denouement is certain, except that one of course thinks of the closing line of King Kong. (4/20/2002)

I have a Scholastic Reading Club copy of Time Machine on my shelf so I guess I read it when I fell for my first Aussie actor, Rod Taylor, though I don't remember the book at all, but I've seen the old movie a lot of times.
I was surprised this one was set in NYC, not London, especially as everyone's accents wandered around from American, to upper class American, to pseudo-Brit (at least it gets points for shooting in New York State -- upstate). The new time travel motivator as his dead fiancée worked well.
The special effects during the time travel of the cities and climate changes were entertaining, and the art direction of the world of the future was creative, though, gee, some folks manage to still speak good English.
Guy Pearce's hair got better looking as he went into the future. I'm sure the NY Public Library will be glad to know it survives, though its interior looks more like the Metropolitan Museum. Orlando Jones was surprisingly good as a cyber librarian.
But ho hum on the battles with the underground enemy, even when led by Jeremy Irons. Sorry I had to laugh at him fighting with Pearce, even though Pearce is supposed to be a nerdy scientist and a chunky stunt double was doing the heavy lifting for Irons. With all of Irons's make-up, this was practically a voice-over and his "Scar" was scarier.
And like all standard sci fi, damsels in distress in the future will be thin, beautiful and dress like Britney Spears (does that mean this is the future?), though this one is a teacher so has some brains too.
Just not much of a thrilling ride on this machine. (3/17/2002)

Imposter is an entertaining, old-fashioned action sci fi flick, based on a Philip Dick story that I had to track down in an out-of-print book coz I'm not 100% sure I got the final twist.
Good cast of Gary Sinise, Madeline Stowe in her usual wife role, Vincent D'Onofrio in an unusual sort of bad guy role, and Mekhi Phifer in I think his first non-teen role.
The futuristic special effects and constant chase scenes are ably handled by a director formerly of Homicide.
Though the search for a terrorist and images of ruined cities ring differently now than they might have before 9/11. (1/13/2002; 8/11/2002)

Seeing Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring made me feel like a kid again, bringing me back to 1958 watching The 7th Voyage of Sinbad with Ray Harryhausen's heroic special effects.
LOTR claims its rightful place as one of the founts of inspiration for Star Wars, with its conflicted good guys up against a growing stronger evil -- that resonates in a post-9/11 world as it must have for Tolkien post-WWI and concurrent with WWII (and eerily like HBO's Band of Brothers).
The cast of Brits, Americans and Antipodeans (including obscure favorites of mine from Brit TV and indie movies) team up amidst special effects that are thrilling yet comprehensibly old-fashioned.
In terms of comparing it to the book, I'm one of possibly two or three Baby Boomers who didn't read The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring until this month (and will wait to complete the rest of the cycle in time for the following two movies), so I was both fresher to the material and less fanatical about it than some, including clarifications of some bits that I had misunderstood in the book.
I appreciated some of the telescoping of details (such as combining the elf princess Arwen, as played by Liv Tyler, with a legendary princess' love story) and missed others (by leaving out Tom Borondil and his mate the River's Daughter, the brightness of nature is left out, making for a darker movie than even the book). The endless exposition in the book is handled well, as both voice overs and through flash-back demonstrations. The final DVD will include deleted scenes.
Particularly well-handled is graphically showing the tempting danger of the Ring's evil power, on others and on Frodo -- a key difference in the mature themes of LOTR in comparison to The Hobbit.
I was disappointed that the songs and mythic poetry were barely replaced by Enya's hardly noticeable background music. (12/29/2001)

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is devotedly faithful to the book.
The special effects, especially the Henson Creature Shop and the quidditch game, are fun, but not fantastically magical.
There's a lot riding on those three kid leads, more than probably any kids can communicate; it makes one realize how much of the book really takes place inside Harry's head.
The great British character actors are underutilized, especially John Cleese as nearly Headless Nick.
The music is too loud and obvious.
A must for fans of the books but this won't make any converts. It is long -- don't take kids too young to read the book; the little kids in our audience were screaming to go home already. (11/25/2001)

Is Donnie Darko the teen crazy, time traveling, prophetic, powerful, or helpless, suicidal or murderous?
The dark humor and satire of American Beauty meets the adolescent traumas of Welcome to the Dollhouse meets the alternative universes of Happy Accidents in a suburbia of hypocrisy and eccentrics, conformity and dysfunction, with a pervasive undercurrent of violence.
Executive produced by Drew Barrymore, it has a terrific cast with the bigger names like Drew and Noah Wyle in surprising and small roles.
The special effects are not flashy but are very effective.
The movie has been cursed in its release timing, because we just can't examine the randomness of violence victims -- let alone plane engines falling out of the sky -- the same way after 9/11. Reading the daily portraits of the victims in the Times makes us all feel as Cassandra-like as Donnie and willing to do anything to change what happened.
The soundtrack is a good selection of '80's mope rock, like The Joy Division and The Cure. (11/22/2001)

Planet of the Apes was a surprisingly conventional, if entertaining, sci fi movie, complete with references to the Star Wars and Star Trek movies, as I expected more imagination from director Tim Burton.
Mark Wahlberg was also surprisingly bland, as I'd liked him in other dramas and I was about the only female in the audience so I guess he's not that much of a chick draw, though I go to about all sci fi movies anyway.
I'm a big fan of Tim Roth but would absolutely never have been able to tell that he was the chief bad guy general without seeing his name in the credits. The ape actors could have been doing voice-overs for animatronics for all the make-up let them emote, which I hadn't felt in the original movie, and Roth's voice really got into the role (he'd turned down the Snapes role in the Harry Potter movie for this).
But sound was the best part of the movie, and it was really loud. Danny Elfman's score was so good, sounding like those Japanese drums a lot of the time, that I paid more attention to the music than to the special effects. (8/21/2001)

Thomas In Love (Thomas est amoureux) is one of the most creative imaginings of social life in the future I've seen since Gattaca.
So many sci fi movies are only technology oriented, while Thomas is about people. It entertainingly satirizes and compares the meaning and purposes of erotic video games, cyber/virtual sex and computer dating services with basic human relationships.
The plot twists and turns so I'm not exactly sure which characters/institutions are manipulating whom to whose advantage and goals. The conceit of never seeing the face of the protagonist works ingeniously as you see all the action from his, and only his, perspective, specifically his computer terminal.
When Thomas comes out in video, it could become a cult hit if it dubs the French-speaking Belgians; this is the first foreign film I've ever seen that I might be willing to watch dubbed on the small screen as reading the subtitles changes the video-vision sub-text. (8/19/01)

Artificial Intelligence is a love story about the movies, about the love of something artificial by something artificial. Don't we seem to love our movie characters more than real people?
AI intentionally combines the iconic images of both Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg, sometimes working together, sometimes conflicting, sometimes taking turns, with Spielberg the survivor as the victor.
There are almost as many references to other movies as in Shrek, but here done with love and longing, not satire. The primary reference is to Wizard of Oz from a tarted up Emerald City ("Rouge City"), a search to get back home, asking a Wizard ("Dr. Know") to lead them there. References fly by to movies such as Rosemary's Baby (with the ineffectual husband agreeing to bring a diabolical child into the family) to Mad Max at Thunderdome (with a post-apocalyptic violent cathartic entertainment) to finding a key remembrance in a pocket like Zuzu's petals. The mood music the Gigolo "mecha" plays are all soundtracks from movies (from Busby Berkeley movies to Guys and Dolls).
But as with Shrek there's also extended digs at Disney. While there's references to the scary flight in the woods from Snow White and the abandonment by Mom in Dumbo -- two of the scariest scenes in my childhood movie memories -- the two central tent poles are the source material for Disney animated classics, but challenging and combining them with different interpretations, "Pinocchio" (with readings from the original book - about another artificial boy who wants to be real) and yet another Spielberg re-visiting of Peter Pan (with an extended quote from the lyrics to "Never Never Land" about a boy who desperately wants a mother and doesn't want to grow up). Unlike Toy Story, these "Super Toys" stay alive when humans are around.
The movie is also a tour through the careers of both Spielberg and Kubrick. The challenge that Spielberg explicitly lays down to Disney is that he wants to "combine flat fact with fairy tale" (i.e. a career statement from the guy who did E.T. and Hook as well as Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan). There goes a spooky image from A Clockwork Orange, here comes Close Encounters of the Third Kind (including the music theme), here comes HAL, there goes E.T.. Spielberg takes the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey and puts his own stamp on what the Star Child was all about.
While movies like Princess Bride posit True Love as the strongest power in the universe, Spielberg instead sees it as the love of a child -- even an artificial child -- for its mother -- even though that love is programmed and the child finds (and rejects) the actual father who created him and loves him. (Sibling rivalry seems to be the second most powerful force, per Cain and Abel).
While The Grouch was in tears at the conclusion, I found that by the time that ending came around after 2 1/2 hours of several false endings, I was feeling uncomfortable with the Oedipal thrust. My kids hated it. (6/30/2001)

Antitrust is scarily realistic.
Tim Robbins is absolutely frightening in every way as a Bill Gates twin. I went to a lecture by the John D. Rockefeller biographer and he said the only difference between JDR and Gates was that JDR had thugs working for him who beat people up and this movie just goes that extra step.
I actually have a friend of a friend who was recruited to Microsoft like the Ryan Phillippe character -- and he was a college drop-out in Israel. They absolutely troll the world looking for programming geniuses to solve problems for them so the disclaimer about Stanford University at the end wasn't necessary.
This was better than The Net or Hackers and worked both as a tekkie warning and as a thriller, with a neat femme fatale twist that yeah has been done before but I thought was done well. (1/31/2001)

I thought Shadow of The Vampire was going to be an arty movie like Werner Herzog's interpretation. While it would make a good combo with Gods and Monsters about the making of Frankenstein, and RKO 281 about Orson Welles and the making of Citizen Kane, it's also not out of place with the darker sides of television's Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.
John Malkovich (as filmmaker Murnau) and Willem Dafoe (literally as Nosferatu) play off each other wonderfully, but Dafoe takes the movie to another level about art and eroticism and obsession. (Buffy had a similar experience with Count Dracula.) I'm sure he's nice as a person, but he's pretty terrifying in this movie, even more than all the evil guys he's played before which is saying something, including a really cruel T.S. Eliot in Tom and Viv.
But there's lots of humor here as the two lead characters' obsessions serve each other and every one else around them falls victims to their needs. Literally.(1/28/2001)

I have never read an X Men comic nor even heard them referred to in any medium until this X Men movie came out.
So I was really involved in the background exposition, which is most of the movie and is mostly a set up for the sequels. It was a bit much to start with the real environment of Nazi concentration camps in '44 and then somehow leap to the "near future" rather than making the whole thing futuristic, but I'm sure other folks know if that's based in the comics.
Hugh Jackman took over the whole movie in a star-making turn. Halle Berry surely won't be able to use this as an audition tape; I hope she at least made big bucks because she had zero to do. James Marsden fans will be similarly disappointed, though Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan get to sleepwalk and still emote.
The sibling-like relationship between Jackman's Wolverine and Anna Paquin's Rogue is surprisingly touching, marred by an unnecessary ending comment that now she has a thing for him that he has to condescendingly put down. Hey, what's the matter with familial affection these days as a motivator?
The fight scenes were a bit ho hum - - it was like a Sesame Street lesson in cooperation as each set of mutants gangs up on enemies to use their super mutant powers together. I kept thinking how much more intense and scary was the Statue of Liberty scene in Hitchcock's The Saboteur compared to this climax.
The music was bombastic but effective. The only song really heard is Lucinda Williams in a bar jukebox. (8/4/2000)

I was right to make a point to catch Pitch Black on a big screen before it goes to cable and video.
What a taut action thriller! What scary yet modestly-priced special effects! What good use of the Aussie outback! Cool use of electronic music.
Vin Diesel is as captivating here as he was in Boiler Room. And there's a couple of my faves from obscure TV shows -- the actress who plays "Aeryn Son" on Farscape was basically playing the same role (and she's not even the only strong woman character) and one of the cops, Colin Hauser, from the late High Incident.
Very unpredictable and surprising with no racial, gender, cultural or sci fi stereotypes. (5/12/2000)

The ads say Frequency is for fans of The Sixth Sense but Avi says it's for fans of Field of Dreams --which our family is the #1 All Time Fans of--and that's an apt genre--a sentimental, thriller baseball fantasy.
While our restive Queens audience had trouble following the plot connecting the '69 Mets with serial murders (our family finally decided that there were some loose ends in plot and relationships that just didn't make sense), the winning and heartfelt performances suck you in (though the closing Garth Brooks song will cause cavities).
And I'm also a sucker for temporal disturbances.
Toronto is mostly a good stand-in for Queens, though they use a matte of the Triboro Bridge in the Whitestone Bridge's location over a Little League Park in Bayside.
The women aren't completely furniture here but could have been developed a bit more. I'm not sure why an entire row of squealing teenage girls in front of me was attracted to this movie but they seemed to enjoy the thrills and chills.(5/12/2000)

The Green Mile would have been a lovely little indie movie if it had been done small scale.
Did it need the full Hollywood treatment of Tom Hanks and ILM special effects? No. It would have made a nice two -part Mystery episode on PBS.
It also did not need to be 3+ hrs of v-e-r-y leisurely story-telling.
Not having read the Stephen King book I don't know what got left out that made the auteur think this was an abbreviated version.
David Morse, who is unsung too often, was quite fine. Michael Clarke Duncan added much needed humanity to the film.
Interesting that like Saving Private Ryan, an older actor is used for 50 years hence, not make-up laden as in the days of Little Big Man.
No reason to see this on a big screen; you can wait for commercial-free cable or video tape, what with lots and lots of close-ups. (1/2/2000)

I went to see Last Night because I'm a major fan of Korean-Canadian actress Sandra Oh, who is both a brilliant comedienne and poignant dramatic actress.
This film is a wonderful contemporary On the Beach from a very indie Canadian viewpoint. Commissioned as one of a series on the millennium, writer/director/lead McKeller chose to imagine the apocalypse as quite matter-of-factly real.
While the poor tech credits, especially the cinematography, will doom this movie to small distribution (hey is one of the ways they know that the world is ending at midnight is because it's so sunny out?), the humanism would bowl over any viewers. The choices of what to do at The End are touchingly believable and satisfyingly symmetric.
It's fun recognizing Canadian actors from Canadian TV shows, including Avonlea and Due South.
There is a running theme of music tied to memories (including Randy Bachman) and trying to select what music to listen to at The End (with a perfectly in-context heartbreakingly beautifully appropriate song finally chosen), including a DJ playing the Top 500 Hits of All Time, mostly songs with "last" as a theme, who finally yaps at the listeners to stop calling in their requests because now finally he gets to pick what he play. So now we know what it takes for free form radio to return. (11/22/1999)

Sleepy Hollow was a visual delight--though I had to frequently turn away from the gory and very frequent decapitations and other bloody detail (which the teen boys in the audience thought were "awesome") making it hard to keep eating my popcorn.
I thought it odd that in a Dutch colonial town everyone spoke with a Brit accent (I guess Christina Ricci being younger was more Americanized), but I enjoyed seeing so many Masterpiece Theater grads, as it was shot on a London soundstage.
Director Tim Burton switches from serious to camp and back, but the knowing script references defuse the gore, with a lot of tips-of-the-hat to The X Files, and Depp's coward-alternating-with-hero is refreshing, borrowing a lot more from Edgar Allen Poe, the inventor of the detective novel, than Washington Irving.
I think this could give young kids nightmares. (11/21/1999)

Unlike most folks I know I really like Pete Townsend's Iron Giant album. It inspired me to get the Ted Hughes' book and read it to my kids, who really liked it.
The animation in the movie is terrific (except for the faces, which are distractingly bland, especially the kid).
There was clearly a dig at Disney by opening with an ocean storm as most Disney animation starts with that (i.e. Little Mermaid and Tarzan etc.) or maybe animators just like doing storms.
This is done very much like Day the Earth Stood Still, a throw-back to old '50's sci fi films with a dash of The X Files, including a satire of Fox Mulder's character. There's references kids won't get, like the "Duck and Cover" cartoons, Sputnik and general Cold War paranoia, which I remember quite well.
Nice that there's actually some sympathetic adults in this, especially the sculptor/junk yard dealer where the Giant hangs out.
But I did miss Townsend's music, even if they bought him off with a producer credit. (8/22/1999)

Far be it from me to criticize the Hollywood hype machine when it helps a small indie movie, but I do feel the need to defend Blair Witch Project against people who say they were disappointed in it as a scary horror movie.
That's because it's not really a scary horror movie!
It's a quite clever Twilight Zone episode about the power of the imagination to be scarier than life, or the undead.
Even The Scion came away saying it was a good model of a cheap, fun, creative-made student film.
It's best seen with the hysterically funny faux documentary about The Curse of the Blair Witch which is to A & E/History Channel documentaries as a certain genre-inventing rockumentary is to VH-1's Behind the Music. (8/22/1999)

The reviews have been truly awful for Kevin Costner's The Postman but I've liked Costner since No Way Out and Bull Durham and I'm a fan of post-apocalyptic movies a la Planet of the Apes, Mad Max, Escape from NY, and Soylent Green. But then I even liked Waterworld.
Sure Postman has some corny bits - a little girl breaking out into "America the Beautiful" etc., and Costner's direction doesn't accent his sexiness, but no different than Mel Gibson's Braveheart for length, ego, etc. Costner's always good as the Everyman pushed into a leadership role; a more charismatic actor wouldn't have made sense
Sure, the choice of slo-mo's under James Newton Howard's schmaltzy music at climactic scenes is not great.
Sure Will Patton is a bit over the top as the fascist general, but the complex conception of his army in the first part of the film is well done.
Sure the choice of Costner dueting with Amy Grant on "Wouldn't It Be Nice" over the closing credits is unfathomable, when there was a perfectly sweet original song done during a dance scene in the movie that would have worked better, "Almost Home," that will get lost in Best Oscar song noms.
I liked the politics and understanding of human nature post-catastrophe.
The scenery is stupendous. (12/30/1997)

Gattacca was cool sci fi I caught on HBO.

Saw a terrific sci fi movie on Sci Fi Channel last night - Cube. It was edited for language so maybe it was originally on pay cable. It didn't seem too otherwise edited, even with a violence warning. Terrific tension. [It now gets repeated fairly frequently on IFC uncut as a cult film.] (supplemented 4/14/2004)

Took the kids in 1997 to see Star Wars for the second time on the Big Screen as he had a friend over -- who hadn't ever seen any of the trilogy! Not on tape, not on TV. Shocking that there are parents out there who have deprived a child of a basic ingredient of American culture! I was glad to do MY part in this kid's education! The afternoon showing was sold out!
Also interesting that the audience was not only age and gender mixed, but also racially. One so rarely sees that.
Saw Phantom Menace yesterday at a mostly full 11 am show with little kids. The visuals (concept and implementation) and effects are wonderful, but clearly George wanted fine actors to tone down. Where was Ewan's exuberance? Surely Portman and Neeson have been livelier. So I figure the whole thing was a set-up for Episode II. It was more like Starship Troopers than like the original Star Wars, fun sci fi but not a great film.
I did like seeing "Palantine"'s rise to power as part of the story, but missed Ford's and Fisher's sassiness and chemistry.
Yes "Jah Jah" is annoying and if he was there for the kids I didn't hear squeals of delight from them when he was on-screen. But sure I'll go see #II.(6/1/1999)
Star Wars: prequels/sequels/series

Ok so I'm not always right in advance. I' m not sure why, but I watched The Terminator on HBO last week. Not one to go to action movies I didn't even know anything about it from '84. I loved it! I had no idea there would be a romance in it, which I'm a big sucker for as a fulcrum in an action movie a la Speed.

I took a respite from a busy week at work to see The Matrix last weekend. I wasn't the only female in the audience. There was one other, also a mother accompanying a son. Sure this is a video game come to life but it's surprisingly appealing to women so would actually make a cool date movie.
At first just the Keanu scenery is worth it (heck, I watched Walk on the Clouds twice). But the women in the movie are cool too and the action is lots of fun. The critics all put down the plot as murky but I got a kick out of the "what is reality?" stuff. (5/9/1999)

We chose to see Fifth Element yesterday because we figured Lost World would be crowded and I didn't like the neighborhood theater that was in.
Element was a lot of visual fun a la Brazil with touches of Indy Jones and Stargate, but was marred by two really jarring stereotypes, with the black DJ virtually duplicating Butterfly McQueen and rolling the whites of his scared pickaninny eyes, plus a nagging mother for absolutely no reason. I think because it's European made they don't realize how offensive these images are.(5/27/1997)

Watching Tom Hanks's From the Earth to the Moon is absolutely infuriating, expanding on the worst aspects of Apollo 13. It's like a nostalgia bath in the good ole days before affirmative action.
It was bad enough the episodes that featured hot shot military guys as we all know how sexist and racist that entity was. But the episode on Grumman developing the LEM was worse -- so the biggest government contract in history didn't employ any women, blacks, Hispanics or Asians? This wasn't exactly the best and the brightest, but an exclusive boys club -plus ex-Nazis like Werner von Braun.
The series provides no insights, no criticism -- except of atheists, drug-crazed hippies and political protestors. It's the world like the Gingriches etc. wish it still was--with one mea culpa about the accident, as a failure of imagination.
These comments led to quite a number of attacks on these reactions on a listserv. I felt that the poster was referring that he participated in was not the military of the '60s but the closer to contemporary military which has become the primo advancer of minorities, viz Colin Powell. Women and minorities were systematically excluded from engineering schools (viz. the terrific Pete Seeger song - "But I Want to Be An Engineer"), science majors, test pilot opportunities etc. during the period of the get-to-the-moon-or-bust, which Tom Wolfe documented much more realistically in Right Stuff. Tom Hanks' view of history is literally a white-wash, with little criticism of the military-industrial complex. There's the documented story of the team of women who were experimentally picked to be astronauts and then the whole project was dropped.
I am not asking for a presentation of a new history (I always find it amusing when cop etc. shows and movies show FBI VIPs as black when the FBI has been shown to be particularly resistant to promoting blacks.) Rather it's the undiluted self-congratulation of Hanks' series with little re-examination or objectivity or context. For example, more objective histories have pointed out that the macho biases of the test pilot gung ho-ness actually slowed correct research into effects of space travel because they refused to tell doctors they had felt nauseous etc. and it was ONLY when NASA started sending up non-military folks like scientists did they find out the TRUTH about the effects and could therefore make modifications.
Doubtless some of those teary-eyed (and ultimately divorced and/or suicidal) wives that Hanks' productions shows were furious at having been denied the opportunity to major in science etc. that would have qualified them for NASA jobs, i.e. this is the period of Feminine Mystique.
And there's been no moral criticism presented of our use of Nazi technology from the V-2 slave camps and Werner Von Braun and associates (the Russians were using his colleagues as well to jumpstart their space program, according to a documentary I saw on A & E) .
I remember Sputnik quite well and whole school assemblies to watch every single blastoff. I remember how my Republican town that tried to spend zero on education agreed at that point to improve science and math classes to help beat the Russkies - but stifled English and Social Studies programs. So there's a whole lot more behind the impact of the space race than Hanks is showing.
When NASA smartened up and expanded who they included - non-military, races, gender, nationalities and research goals etc. they also geometrically increased public and political support for the space program so even on a PR basis they realized the problem. The Russians had been ahead of them on that.
I'm not trying to rewrite history - I was there and it's not being fully shown. I have the same reaction to this series that I do when I go to the ballet or orchestra -- how much greater would the classical arts be if they were really bringing in the best and the brightest talent and not just from a certain segment of society?
So I think this series should be twice as long, and even more in-depth. That said, on the rerun I got the whole family to watch and for the most part we were all enthralled (though The Scion walked out on the episode focusing on The Wives), especially the episodes that focused engineering and science--the only real justifications for the Apollo and clearly NASA waited too long to do real science to keep public support.

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